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Marketing and Comms
Tony’s Chocolonely:
The Advent of More Teachable Brand Moments?

“Tony’s has done a great job of raising awareness of an important issue; and there is a real risk that the overriding message that will be left, once the dust settles, is one of a brand getting it wrong — and that could undermine all of the important messaging that Tony’s tries to share through its purpose.”

For its Advent calendar this year, ethical chocolate brand Tony’s Chocolonely took the opportunity to embed a teachable moment that apparently missed the mark: The company left the space under Day 8 empty, to highlight inequality in the chocolate industry — in what it had hoped to be "a great conversation starter for change."

The brand explained on Twitter on December 8, saying:

“Happy day 8, Choco Fans! Noticed something different in your calendar today? Yep, it's empty. And why? 'Cos at Tony’s we use our products to tell the story of the choco industry – an industry unequally divided and choc-full of inequality. In Ghana and the Ivory Coast, at least 1.56 million children work under illegal conditions because the price being paid for cocoa is too low. Worst still, at least 30,000 adults & children are forced to work. We don’t think that’s okay.”

Realizing depriving Western children of their beloved holiday sweets wasn’t likely to lead to the desired eye-opening moment, the brand made sure to make up for it, later in the calendar:

“Just like our bars are unequally divided to tell this story, so too is our calendar. But between you and us, we’ll make it up to you other days! You’re even getting 25 chocolates in the calendar for 24 days. That’s the benefit of an unequally divided calendar.”

But according to Sky News, the public’s reaction was mixed at best — one Twitter user condemned the move as a "hard fail;" while one Facebook user acknowledged it was "a great way to highlight the situation, especially during a season when so many of us are surrounded by so much."

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Regardless, Tony’s has apologized for causing "confusion and disappointment."

But should it have? Here, James Edney, Sustainability Strategy Director at Given, weighs in on the company’s back-pedaling:

"As a parent of a 5-year-old whose first thought upon waking near the holidays is “where is my advent calendar” and a professional working in the purpose space at Given, Tony Chocolonely’s advent calendar and subsequent apology is an interesting piece of PR to consider. Both the calendar and the apology seem a positive PR opportunity for the brand to communicate its purposeful stance.

"The controversy has created an interesting news hook in which the brand has been able to peg an explanation of its position on inequality within the chocolate industry. With many of the news pieces talking about the brand’s views, you could say it has helped cement its position as a brand with purpose credentials. However, making an apology for taking an ethical position seems odd. The brand’s disgust for children working in illegal conditions in Ghana and the Ivory Coast is justified, but not something which should be associated with an apology.

"Tony’s is a brand that has done a great job of raising awareness of an important issue; and there is a real risk that for the consumer, the overriding message that will probably be left, once the dust settles, is one of a brand getting it wrong — and that could undermine all of the important messaging that Tony’s tries to share through its purpose. I admit I’m in a privileged position where I would be comfortable and knowledgeable enough to have a conversation with my daughter about an empty advent calendar window — but, ultimately, I don’t think Tony’s should have apologised.

"In terms of it causing offence to children, as some comments from parents suggest, children need to learn about issues of social injustice; and the empty calendar slot created the space for a conversation. But children need to be communicated to in the right way and one appropriate to their age, and that is where Tony’s could have done a much better job. For lots of children and parents, there would just have been disappointment, tears and I’m sure the immediate opening of the 9th window to salvage some chocolate."

Regardless of the fallout of the advent calendar and the apology, we applaud Tony’s Chocolonely for remaining true to its purpose — not only through its work to create an ethical and equitable, “100% slave free” cocoa supply chain, but in educating the public on the myriad challenges in achieving it (as, for example, Nestlé did around palm oil and Kevin Murphy did around ocean plastics, earlier this year). We look forward to many more brands wearing their purpose — and their supply chain issues — on their sleeves in the coming year.