Thornton’s have been around 100 years this autumn, but have probably never faced a bigger challenge than they do now. You can close stores, cut costs and change logos with relative ease; but this issue I see as being the most difficult to solve is that of perception.
On a recent family holiday I brought of the topic of chocolate (as I usually do) and asked what they thought of Thorntons. The old and youngish amongst them both viewed the company as unexciting, staid and missing the glamour they look for when they buy chocolate. Then paradoxically the largest box of Thorntons Continentals I’ve ever seen appeared. Two days later there were still a few left.
What I’ve come to realise is that they became known as the ‘only’ chocolatier for selection boxes. This was great for them in the past as buying Thorntons became second nature – if you were giving chocolates to a family member or having a party your natural reaction was to give Thorntons, you didn’t have to think too hard – because there was really no-one else to buy from. Today the supermarkets are awash with options, the high street being inundated with chocolatiers in many cities, and the internet has given consumers a level of choice that is just staggering.
Today their head chocolatier, Keith Hurdman, is ‘Joint Chocolatier of the Year’ (doc) with four gold awards from The Academy of Chocolate. Who, in the wider world, would have predicted that? Thorntons just do Continentals, right? People who know chocolate would never rate a large-scale chocolatier over those small scale guys and girls beavering away with passion, in their London, Paris or Brussels kitchens – wrong. And these Acadamy gongs prove the fact.
In the past few years the new kids on the block have taken the chocolate agenda away from Thorntons, they’ve instilled in people that they want shiny, sophisticated chocolate boxes based on themes and seasons which Thorntons just haven’t thought of. These companies create funky flavours – pushing boundaries and make the process of buying chocolate an experience in itself. Unfortunately buying chocolate from Thorntons shop became like buying tights for your granny on the set of Are You Being Served? When people buy or give chocolate they wanted some of that sophistication to rub off on them – they didn’t like the thought of brushing shoulders with people they mistakenly thought would visit a Thorntons store. The company faltered as a result.
The problem is Thorntons do make more fantastic chocolates than those that won awards – but you just wouldn’t know that. Thorntons just haven’t been good at beating the drum to the mass market about how talented their team are and that they’re not a one-trick-pony. They’ve shown that when it comes to horses for courses they certainly can certainly trot out the odd through-bred.
Thorntons are increasingly becoming proud of what they do. I’ve been in the situation in the past. I’ve worked for a troubled company where all you only hear the negatives – press article after article, blog post after blog post say you’re no longer relevant. But there’s no greater satisfaction that proving people wrong – and I have no doubt the they’ll do that.
To my mind there has been a complete and utter disjoint between the Thorntons brand over recent years and the quality of the chocolates they actually produce. If the media keep telling Thorntons they’re no longer the company they should be, you can’t blame the company for feeling the same. As I said to the Chief Executive Thorntons: Jonathon Hart at the awards ceremony: every businesses has cycles (like he didn’t already know). Thorntons was due to a period of missing what the consumers wanted. That’s fine it happens to even the biggest companies – just look at Nokia! It’s time to for them to move on – and I think they’re doing that at a pace most people, especially in the mainstream media, don’t appreciate.
Take the award for the Tonka Milk Chocolate Bar, and three for their Raspberry and Rose, crunchy praline and Vanilla caramel with crunchy sea salt treats – they’re wonderful and nothing like the Continentals that the company became overly reliant on. Surely that just proves they DO make great chocolates, and that people SHOULD consider try their other ranges. You can’t (re)build a great chocolate company on three bon bons … but as that’s what I’ve got in front of me, let’s see how well they’d do.
Even if I’m not a fan of praline I thoroughly enjoyed this more creative version. It’s not an assault on your taste buds as so many other pralines are. It has a delightful crunch, a wonderful appearance and fantastic flavour. I would easily eat more than one of these – which I won’t normally do.
The salted caramel was just ‘gootastic’. Sticky, sweet and utterly delicious. The vanilla played second fiddle – as it should, but was certainly noticeable and lifted the salt flavour. This is a perfect example of how different their new chocolates are from those granny would remember.
Even though rose flavours are typically adored by the older generation, the raspberry that went with it gave it a sweet tanginess that is probably more relevant to the younger chocolate lovers amongst us. Their older continentals were typically mute and flat in flavour, but this one, and the others, were a great deal more dynamic.
In those three winners there was nothing, watery of faux tasting. There were none created to be long-life, temperature resistant chocolates which could be made now for this Christmas. They tasted fresh, relevant and full of flavour.
My family are wrong, and I’ll happily send them a box each of Thornton’s new chocolates to help them change their minds! If you had already given up on Thorntons, try their new stuff and see what you think. I’m sure you’d understand why I’m fond them.