The Sledgehammer

A Delicious Challenge

August 16, 2022

Should eating a Hershey’s chocolate bar be considered a crime?

Teun (Tony) van de Keuken, a Dutch journalist, would certainly say so because your consumption of mass market chocolate makes you complicit with human rights abuses carried out by the companies that produce them.

Tony began investigating the chocolate industry a few years earlier and discovered that cocoa farmers in western Africa, where 70% of the world’s chocolate comes from, were being exploited and enslaved, and in many cases, child labor was being employed.

He was so distressed by these modern slavery practices that he took a dramatic step to drive awareness of the issue. He attempted to get arrested for eating 19 chocolate bars and filed a lawsuit against himself that claimed he was complicit in supporting child slavery and the chocolate industry’s human rights abuses.

The case was eventually dismissed, but the stunt garnered him a good amount of publicity. With it, Tony thought he could pressure ‘Big Chocolate’ into making substantive changes to the ways they produced their goods, but the chocolate industry is highly consolidated (just seven big producers own most of the brands we know) and they were unfortunately unmoved.

Lacking other options, Tony decided to be the change he wanted to see in the world and launched Tony’s Chocolonely in 2005. Brightly colored, fun and whimsical, the Willy-Wonka-esque packaging is a stark contrast to the serious messaging and dire mission behind the company’s founding, and also serves to set the brand apart from its more somber counterparts.

Image Credit: Sebastian Koppehel on the Wikipedia page for Tony’s

In leading the lonely charge to fight inequality in the chocolate industry and produce slave-free chocolate, Tony embodied the very practices and values that he was calling on the industry to adopt. The company pays farmers fair wages and avoids child labor and modern slavery in the supply chain. They publish annual reports on the state of the chocolate industry and their efforts to improve it. They create long-term partnerships with farmers that lead to sustainable improvements. Even the design of the bars themselves embodies the company’s values: each chocolate bar is divided into unequal chunks to represent the inequality in the chocolate industry.

How has challenging a roughly $200 billion industry worked out for Tony’s Chocolonely? Not too shabbily: as of 2021, they have 2.2% of the multibillion-dollar US market, and close to 20% of the Dutch market. Their latest annual global sales clocked in at about $115 million, and this winter alone they sold 46 million chocolate bars. Through all of this, they continue to fight to make slave-free chocolate the norm.

And the cherry on top? It’s delicious!

Image Credit: Tony’s Chocolonely website

Besides being reminded of how much we love chocolate, what can we learn from Tony’s chocolate challenge?

Go big or go home

Tony wasn’t making headway as a journalist by publishing TV stories on the state of the chocolate industry and pushing the chocolate giants to change their ways. So, he got radical — suing himself, and starting his own chocolate company to disrupt the status quo. The brand does not shy away from the hard issues — they address human rights, child labor, modern slavery, poverty, systemic inequality, and institutional racism head on. Will they solve these problems on their own? No, of course not. But they’re transparent about how they try and when they fail.

Takeaway: Does your brand have an opportunity to be brave? Don’t be afraid to make a big splash when the opportunity presents itself. Big change and big results require big, bold moves. Operate like everyone else and risk irrelevance.

Figure out what you stand for and uphold it every day

Tony’s has a very clear vision — a world without modern slavery or child labor in the chocolate industry — and every part of their brand is dedicated to that cause. They’re not even a chocolate company, if you ask them, instead preferring to define themselves as “an impact company that makes chocolate.” They stay true to these core ideals in every communication, event, partnership, and product.

Takeaway: Does your brand stand for something that your audience cares about or can be made to care about? A different treatment paradigm? A commitment to an underserved audience? Particularly in today’s world, as we start to more deeply understand the inequities that are baked into all aspects of healthcare, there should be ample ways for your brand to make a statement, perhaps while also making a positive impact for your key demographic.

Live your brand

Two of Tony’s core brand characteristics are “outspoken” and “makes you smile,” and it’s consistent in almost everything they do, from their bright and happy visual identity to the messaging and tone of all their content, even down to their annual state of the company event.

Takeaway: Does that brand personality that was workshopped all those years ago still manifest in every piece you put out? Or is it so long forgotten that your brand doesn’t have a singular voice anymore? Consistency in your tone, messaging, and design is key for establishing a solid brand foundation.

From journalist to activist to disrupter to successful chocolatier, Tony’s Chocolonely is an inspiring Challenger story that demonstrates how leading the change can garner both respect and real business impact. Was it a risk? You bet. But the results? So sweet.

At any given time, there are hundreds of actual sledgehammers floating around the Heartbeat office and resting on shelves in Heartbeaters’ homes. To celebrate their first year on the team, each HB’er receives their very own sledge — a nod to our daily pursuit of tearing down tiresome healthcare marketing. To determine what is built in its place, we often turn to outside industries, cultural forces, and personal experiences. We eagerly share them with one another, and now we’re sharing them with you. Clear the way — here comes The Sledgehammer.