A mission so sweet. The story of Tony's Chocolonely.

A man buys 10 different chocolate bars and takes a bite out of each one. He puts a camera on himself and calls up the international emergency number and says ‘I want to turn myself in as a chocolate criminal. I’m complicit to financing child slavery. You have to come and arrest me.’ Unsurprisingly, nobody did. So, naturally, he set up a court case against himself.

This was the beginning of Dutch journalist Teun van de Keukensaw’s lonely crusade to change the chocolate industry. It was also the start of our Founders’ Collective where 50 founders of fast-growing brands were lucky enough to hear from Ynzo van Zanten, Tony’s Chief Evangelist and Ben Greensmith, Lord Chocolonely iii and UK & Ireland Country Manager (formerly Commercial Director at our previous partner brand, Proper).

At Piper, we talk a lot about the need for inspiring, authentic and purpose-led storytelling. Some founders start with an innovative design, others with a two-by-two market grid. Tony’s Chocolonely began as a campaign; the product a means to making change happen quicker. The team behind the brand call themselves impact-makers that happen to make chocolate. There’s nothing more purpose led than that.

Big boy problems

Ynzo started the session by describing what drives everything the business does – a clear mission to make the chocolate industry 100% slave free and show that you can make the product a different way. This means taking full responsibility for the brand’s value chain, from bean to bar, and following its ‘five sourcing principles’: trace the beans, pay a higher price, support strong farmers, go for the long term, and focus on quality and productivity.

The problem is that a handful of companies produce 95% of chocolate in the world. Yet it’s in the interests of these big companies for cocoa prices for prices to remain inhumanely low – just 5.5% of the price of a £3.50 bar goes to farmers.

The majority of cocoa grown is on millions of tiny family-run African farms, with Ghana and Ivory Coast making up 60% across a total of 1.5 million. In these farms, 1.5 million children work illegally and 95% in hazardous conditions, working with machetes, heavy machinery and chemicals. Seven-year-olds have to carry 64kg bags by themselves. This is modern slavery.

Instead, Tony’s pays a Fairtrade Premium plus a Tony’s premium to bridge the gap and get people to a living income – with a roof over their head, money to feed the whole family and send the kids to school, as well as a little bit left over to invest. All this helps to increase the quality of the cocoa beans and the productivity of the farms.

Copy us

Its purpose, principles and supply chain are printed on the inside of Tony’s wrappers. The team want to be copied as much as possible. They are proud that Holland’s biggest supermarket, Albert Heijn, now sources its chocolate based on these principles.

This has not been a barrier to success. The bestselling chocolate bar in Holland is Tony’s salted caramel one, outselling the second bestselling one (its milk chocolate bar) by 50%. Interesting fact: it was invented by the company’s intern, Ava.

Crazy about chocolate, serious about people

Tony’s started to change the industry from within. To do this, the brand needed to build the most inspired and engaged team, so stole how to do this from the best – Innocent (where Ynzo used to work).

Everyone in the team has unlimited holidays and managers are accountable for people having to take a minimum of 28 days. They have a £1k baby bonus. If the child is with someone else in the business then they both get £1k and, amusingly, a further £1k if they call the child Tony.

You’ll never hear anyone in the office talk about ‘HR’ as they believe humans are not resources. If you call Tony’s, you get to talk to someone straight away, whether it’s a customer or a supermarket – B2B and B2C does not exist, it’s about H2H (human to human economics).

Serious friends…and growth

For both Ynzo and Ben, the focus has been on using the mission to build the brand. All marketing is earnt and owned media. It’s about being top of mind in a very competitive and impulsive category – nobody has it on their shopping list, yet everyone has it in their basket at checkout.

The bars were designed to be standout. The pieces being unevenly sized are a discussion piece at dinner parties (another interesting fact: there is a map of Western Africa hidden in the chocolate bar). Once in a while, they get a call from a mother saying that Tony’s has caused fights between her kids wrestling over the biggest piece.

The growth of Tony’s has been about building genuine emotive relationships with its community. When starting out, and even still, the team look for ‘serious friends’ among its customer base who will actively spread the mission to family and friends. Not a penny has been spent on paid media.

In the UK in 2019, Tony’s launched a free pop-up shop in Soho with a sign ‘come here for free chocolate’. Elsewhere, there have been free talks about the chocolate industry, choco trucks and a ‘bitter chocolate’ experience in Germany and Holland telling the stories of cocoa farmers and the supply chain. And, just this summer, they toured the country with an interactive Willy Wonka esque experience to teach people about the inequalities in the cocoa chain, and of course a chance to try some free chocolate.

This combination of smart marketing and great recipes means Tony’s is a market leader in Holland (19% market share) and growing rapidly globally, well on its way to becoming a £100m business. In the UK, it’s grown into a £10m+ brand over three years.

The last interesting and most startling fact is that an average Brit eats 8kg of chocolate a year, which means many of us (including some at Piper) eat far more than that. Tony’s criminally tasty bars won’t help this. Thanks Teun!