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Lessons in longevity from a box of chocolates

Mar 27, 2016 Strategy, Success, Sunday Nation

(Photo credit: Abdulla Al Muhairi / Flickr)

When I was a boy, my mother always kept her sewing materials in a particular tin container. That colourful round container was from Quality Street, the producers of a famous chocolate/toffee assortment. I’m pretty sure many of you are nodding your heads at that memory – our mothers adored those handy boxes, as we adored the sweets.

Fast forward to today: my son loves the chocolates just like his father did (and does); our family always keeps the containers, once emptied of sweets, to store various household paraphernalia. 40 years later.

Those sweets look and taste pretty much exactly the same as they did all those years ago, and they still sell in huge numbers. Quality Street is the world’s number one selling boxed chocolate assortment and is sold all over the globe. Their story began in 1890 when John Mackintosh opened a sweets shop in Halifax, northern England. John’s innovation was to combine hard toffee with soft caramel to produce the distinctive soft centres.

His son Harold inherited the business and in 1936 he invented Quality Street, which is still manufactured in the same facility today. Harold’s revolution was to bring exotic chocolates to the people for a reasonable price, using a new twist-wrapping machine to wrap each piece of candy separately. He also used a tin to protect the aroma and freshness of the chocolates, and cannily saw that it would be reused in the household if made attractive and robust.

80 years later, they’re still going strong, and still loved by new generations.

There are several lessons here. First, great entrepreneurs pay great attention to their target market. Posh chocolates were an expensive, exclusive product when Harold Mackintosh got going; he figured out that a ‘luxury’ assortment (made more cheaply by using local ingredients) would play big with the burgeoning English middle class of the time if priced correctly. His sweets were pricey, but within reach. He expected people would love to buy them as gifts for special occasions. He was right. And the same thing happened in country after country.

But ideas come and go. A second lesson is that execution is key. A strict adherence to high quality standards pays. Big. This company has a kept the standard going for decades. I watch so many local players cut corners on quality within months of starting, let alone decades, and I wonder what they think they’re doing. If your strength is taste and packaging, then those two things must be protected at all costs. Quality Street became part of Rowntree Mackintosh, which was in turn bought out by Nestlé. These ownership changes have brought about branding changes and new offerings – but the core original assortment and family tin carries on apace.

The third lesson: not everything will be disrupted. These days we are all awash with the expectation that new technology – smartphones, robotics, artificial intelligence – will revolutionize everything. Yet we still stick to the same brands and have no desire to change in so many things: chocolates, whiskies, fine wines, cheeses, pubs and restaurants. Some things are timeless, particularly those that relate to certain senses. In fact, we will often pay more for items that claim to adhere to long-standing traditions.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb advises us: have a great respect for literary culture and the historical record, so that you understand which things survive and why. Human life is not just about a radically different future and dramatic breaks from the past; it is also about human traditions that are timeless. Products and strategies should change; human values should not.

Yet the makers of fine foods and beverages should also expect to use the new tech wisely. The product may not change, but the way it is made and marketed certainly must. My son may love the taste of Quality Street as much as his father did, but he’s not going to buy them or pay for them in the same way. A thoughtful producer would know this, and would pay great attention to that generation to understand how behaviour patterns will change.

Which products and technologies will last, and which ones will wither? As I have written before, that requires a degree of wisdom and insight that can only come from deep curiosity about the human animal. Curiosity is not just about where humankind is going; it’s also about where it came from.

(Sunday Nation, 27 March 2016)

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