Those Swiss bastards are at it again. Apparently, they have told confectionery giant Mondelēz that it needs to remove the Matterhorn from the company’s Toblerone packaging. The reason? Mondelēz is moving some of the bar’s production to Slovakia to “respond to increased demand worldwide and grow our Toblerone brand for the future”. And that move from Switzerland means it can’t have one of their mountains on its package any more.
The company will remove the 14,692ft mountain (with its secretly inlaid Bernese bear – can you see it?) from all packaging and replace it with a “generic mountain”. The move will be accompanied with a generally updated packaging design that will include a distinctive new Toblerone typeface and the inclusion of the signature of the brand’s founder, Theodor Tobler.
The move is likely to spark a whole bunch of branding hoohaa, as industry commentators make two over-made points, neither of which is necessarily true. First, they will argue that Toblerone is going to lose its distinctive brand assets and therefore immolate itself and sales because no-one – NO-ONE – should fuck around with brand codes. Second, they will argue that Swiss heritage and provenance is essential to the brand and appeal, and market share will be hurt as a result. Let’s kill both points separately.
First, while Mondelēz needs to proceed with caution, there is a – ahem – mountain of evidence to suggest it will be able to navigate the challenges ahead. For starters, the brand managed very well without a mountain for the first 62 years of its existence. And while Mondelēz is losing the Matterhorn, its introduction of a suitably anonymous but Swiss-looking peak will satisfy 99.999% of the market. Only the 0.001% of consumers who also inhabit marketing Twitter are even going to notice.
The biggest danger comes from the new font and packaging design that Mondelēz is introducing. It is possible to throw the distinctiveness baby out with the bath water of a brand refresh thereby reducing a brand’s appeal despite that being the exact opposite of what was originally intended. But there is also a less obvious but equally giant danger in inaction. Freezing a design for decades ends with a dusty, old-school image which, when combined with an ageing customer base and new competitors, can end up significantly undermining the brand too.
The sweet spot of brand revitalisation is a modernised packaging that looks like a brand-new version of the past. A trip to the archive. A sensitive creative team. A bit of data on distinctive assets and some pre-testing of the new package options can ensure that Toblerone comes out ahead of where it was with the Matterhorn. For every Peter Arnell massacring a characteristic packaging format like Tropicana, there are a dozen examples of sensitive, quiet updates that allow a brand to move forward without any damage to distinctiveness or sales.
Provenance is unimportant
But what about the second issue? The switch from Switzerland to Slovakia? Surely this will lead to consumers storming Mondelēz headquarters with pitchforks and cowbells demanding blood?
Again, no. While it’s been part of marketing dogma for decades to make provenance part of the core branding concept, the evidence is less certain. We may well have once lived in an era where ‘British-made’ was a big part of a brand’s appeal or Japanese-made technology was seen as better than others. But in the mixed up, modern world of partial assembly and global sourcing, there are almost no companies left that make everything in one place. Even Swiss watches only set the bar at 60% of manufacturing costs being incurred in the country, to gain the red-and-white accreditation.
Advanced companies realise that the image of a brand’s home is more important than its factual origin.
That’s partly because brands want to save money. But it’s a lot more complex than that. When Steve Jobs attended a White House dinner in 2011 he, like the other tech luminaries invited to the event, was asked to come armed with a question for President Obama. When Jobs raised his arm it was the President who spoke first.
All of Jobs’ products were famously ‘Designed by Apple in California’ but ‘Assembled in China’. Obama asked Jobs what it would take to bring those jobs back to the USA? “Those jobs aren’t coming back,” was Job’s ominous response. Chinese production was not just cheaper. It was faster. It was better. And it would have proven almost impossible to find the same level of skill at that scale required anywhere other than China.
But, crucially, there was one other point to justify Jobs’ answer: nobody gave a fuck. Then or now. Every Apple you have ever owned has been etched with an admission that it was assembled in China and, with the exception of a handful of nutjobs and the aforementioned members of marketing Twitter, the brand has done just fine.
And that goes for almost every brand in the 21st century. The German beer I drink comes from Luton. The British car I drive is made in Leipzig. And in neither instance does the actual origin impinge on the perceived nationality of the brand I am consuming. I like a British car. I like a German beer. It’s a mixed-up, fucked-up global market but as long as I think I am consuming it the way I want it, then it makes perfect sense to me.
Image means more than origin
Call it the unavoidable outcome of internationalism. Or the ultimate postmodern implication for authenticity. But consumers aren’t just unconcerned about the origin and provenance of their products, they are entirely comfortable with a consumed image of provenance that sits in direct contrast to the reality of the matter.
Scotch whisky is a fascinating example of the contradiction between actual physical origins of the product and the fabled, entirely accepted projection that marketing communications conjures for target consumers. While every brand shows its handsome, windswept distillery in glorious 4K detail, most whisky is just initiated here. It then spends the rest of its pre-purchase existence, often a decade or more, hundreds of miles from the distillery in a barrel on an industrial estate somewhere outside of Glasgow.
Does it matter? Not one shite. “Romantics might cling to the notion that maturation at distilleries imparts some special flavour or character to the maturing whisky,” Dr Nick Morgan from Diageo’s whisky division once noted, “but the facts say otherwise, and, as those once noble whisky bonds demonstrate, whiskies have been matured in central locations for generations.”
Advanced companies realise that the image of a brand’s home is more important than its factual origin. Indeed, in many cases, that image is strengthened when the need for verisimilitude and provenance disappears. It is entirely likely that there is a design team working away right now on an imaginary Swiss peak that is far more distinctive and impactful than anything the original Matterhorn could offer.
And that primacy of image over origin is made all the more important when you realise that consistency to a brand’s position often forces an organisation to move away from its traditional home. Not despite the brand’s image, but because of it.
The great luxury brands shifted much of their manufacturing to China, not because it was cheaper but because no other nation had that many talented leather workers who could achieve that level of luxury at scale. Scotch whisky houses would have ruined their pristine distilleries with millions of litres of stock stored all around them in ever larger mountains. Volvo’s Chinese ownership allowed the brand to become safer, more environmental and more boring; and producing the cars in Belgium, China and the USA (and Sweden) has made the company more successful than at any period when it was Swedish-owned.
Most smart organisations deliberately merge their symbolic and actual provenance in such a manner that they become entirely indivisible – even to expert consumers. When Burberry, for example, closed much of its UK production, it moved to a model which – to this day – is opaquely multinational. The company now makes its products in Italy, China and the UK. Provided there is some production at Castleford and Keighley Mills, plus the usual over-exaggeration of Britishness in all its communications, the brand won’t just survive this inconsistency, it will prosper because of it.
Toblerone is not in trouble. It won’t suffer a loss of distinctiveness or sales because of Slovakian production or the absence of a Swiss mountain on its packaging. It will get bigger, better Slovakian production facilities, a more Swiss-looking-non-Swiss mountain and big old bump in sales.