Comforting and indulgent, hot chocolate has hitherto hardly bothered with too much innovation and trend chasing; well, if it ain’t broke… However, as consumer interest in the category heats up, we ask, isn’t it time drinks makers shook things up a little?
When was the last time you made yourself a comforting cup of smooth chocolately goodness? When it was winter? At Christmas? Or – with how hard some of those available to make at home are to properly mix and turn into something palatable – never?
Delicious though hot chocolate can be, it’s a category that has arguably been overlooked and overshadowed in recent years, as calorie conscious consumers opt for functional drinks such as coffee and tea when seeking out a hot beverage.
With strong seasonal associations, it’s a drink that has struggled to break out of its key winter-consumption occasion. And what’s more, at-home products have always had something of a quality issue. That is to say the expectation of a rich, velvety, comforting drink, is often dashed as products fail to mix properly, quantities of milk or water to the mix are hard to judge, and somehow products never quite seem to match the hot chocolates enjoyed out of home.
Yet, it’s a category that is also receiving renewed consumer interest. In fact, lockdown led to a resurgence for hot chocolate products, as homebound consumers sought out comforting, hot milky drinks. And with a hybrid of at-home and office working now the norm, consumers are embracing new occasions, forming new habits and looking for greater flavour and product exploration in the home. According to Kantar, the category grew by 13% in volume in the UK to the year to 27 December 2020, something it also credits to new consumers entering the category.
From a hot chocolate point of view, what’s the answer to this new and growing demand? What can the category do to make itself more interesting, and frankly, make the product better? As with seemingly most categories, first up, there’s flavours.
First up, flavours
Though hot chocolate has hitherto been largely immune to following trends, there’s signs some brands are now embracing trending flavours. Step forward UK coffee and tea producer Whittard, which has recently, and curiously, jumped on the tropical flavour trend, with the launch of a Piña Colada White Hot Chocolate.
Promising to “transport you to the tropics in just one sip” – and extend hot chocolate consumption beyond the colder months – the limited-edition is a summer special and is said to have notes of creamy coconut, and zingy pineapple. The brand’s other current seasonal is Cookies and Cream, and its line-up of other current flavours includes Peanut Butter, Chilli, Mint, Orange, Banoffee Pie, Raspberry Ripple, Sticky Toffee Pudding, Ginger, and Marzipan. Here too, dessert inspired drinks are having a moment.
Keeping it cocoa
Next up, brands are also following dietary trends, in a bid to cater for health conscious and vegan consumers. Australian-based confectionery brand Nomad Chocolate for example has combined the creation of a vegan, gluten-free, dairy free and preservative free brand, with a deeper exploration of cocoa itself. The brand calls out the flavour complexities of cacao grown in different regions across the world. Exploring terroir is a new area for the category, but taps into consumer desire for connoisseurship, exploration, traceability, and goes some way to helping hot chocolate catch up to rival categories such as coffee, where a focus on the bean varietals and country of origin has long been a focus, highlighting to consumers what to expect flavour-wise, and signalling quality. Expect more brands to promote themselves using this barista-style approach.
Fun, but make it functional
There are signs that the category is moving into the much-hyped realms of functionality too; a move that at first glance makes sense when you look at its competitor set. Products such as Laird Superfood Hot Chocolate includes functional mushrooms, specifically maitake, reishi, and chaga, and has been designed as a healthier alternative to caffeine. More may follow suit, but are consumers really looking to hot chocolate in their health-conscious moments? Is its primary role not to be an indulgence?
Missing a trick
What to do then for a category that frankly seems to be undergoing somewhat of an identity crisis? The next move for hot chocolate should be to play to its strengths, while also addressing its weaknesses. First up, and it seems a simple approach that hasn’t yet been addressed by any major brand, is to dial up the very thing people are looking for in the first place. And it won’t stagger you to know, that’s chocolate.
Hyper chocolately hot chocolates are not yet a thing, but they should be. With so many consumers experience of at-home products resembling something vaguely similar to dish water with a slight chocolate note, and even cereals doused with milk beating them on their chocolatey credentials, it seems an obvious place to start when it comes to changing perceptions. In fact, chocolate brands that have become known for their rich, flavourful chocolate are ripe to lead the charge here. Tony’s Chocolonely, won’t you come out to play?
Next up, mouthfeel. One of the key things at-home hot choccies lack, is a thick satisfying mouthfeel. But they need it. Nitro hot chocolate anyone? Is there a role for canned ready mixed products with a widget that can be heated up at home while still retaining their body? Much as coffee pod machines have become a kitchen staple, is there cause for a dedicated hot chocolate making gadget? If launched by and attached to a particular brand, they could lead a powerful charge to change the experience of consuming hot chocolate in the home.
All in all, hot chocolate has been an overlooked and ignored category for too long. But it shouldn’t be. The consumer demand is there and growing. Yet the methods and options to vastly improve it seem well within reach; but who will be the first to try?
Interested in finding out more about what this might mean for you and your business?
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