'We're fair and not so square': Pascal van Ham, Head of Marketing at Tony's Chocolonely

With previous marketing roles at Heineken and for an NGO, Pascal van Ham joined Tony's Chocolonely to combine the 'best of both' worlds - help build a global brand, whilst making a difference to people's lives. During an intimate chat at Tony's offices in Amsterdam's creative neighbourhood Westerpark, Pascal talks category codes, pull marketing and fostering a challenger culture.

What inspired Tony’s Chocolonely?

After reading a newspaper article about child slavery on cocoa plantations in West Africa, journalist Teun (Tony) van de Keuken, and two other journalists, began an investigation for Keuringsdienst van Waarden, a Dutch TV series focusing on food production and abuses in the food supply chain. 

During the research, Teun found a protocol signed by all the big chocolate multinationals in 2001 to eradicate 'the worst forms of child labour.' Curious as to whether the industry had made progress on the issue since, he investigated further and found that nothing had happened.

In 2005, Teun and his fellow journalists founded Tony’s Chocolonely to show the industry that it was time to take serious action. That was the beginning. We were a small company with a big ambition. Although still a challenger we're now the market leader in the Netherlands, and people are waking up to us.

What is the scale of the problem?

I was shocked. I knew child labour and child slavery was a problem in the cocoa industry, but I had no idea how big it was until I started working at Tony's. There are 2.1 million children working in illegal circumstances in Ghana and the Ivory Coast in West Africa. This has to change.

Our vision is for 100% slave free chocolate, not only our chocolate, but all chocolate worldwide. Only by working with other companies and retailers can we make this the norm in the chocolate industry and make our vision of 100% slave free chocolate worldwide a reality. That is the endgame.

Credit: Tony's Chocolonely

Credit: Tony's Chocolonely

Are many consumers aware of slavery in the cocoa industry?

Consumers are becoming more aware, but not nearly enough. One of the key marketing objectives of our team is to increase awareness of the issue of child slavery and child labour on cocoa farms in West Africa.

60% of the people in the Netherlands are aware now, but that's still 40% who aren't. That is still a big part of the Netherlands that eats chocolate without knowing the big social problem behind it.

How central is the mission to the running of the business?

At a time of so much purpose-driven marketing, there are companies that adopt a mission in order to do better marketing. For us, the marketing only exists to realise our mission. It sounds perhaps like a minor difference, but it is such a big difference in the way we do things because our mission leads everything.

There are activities or partnerships we turn down because it doesn’t contribute to our mission. We are growing quickly so we get frequent requests to advertise, or to engage in sponsorships but we don't believe in paid media to engage people, and all marketing initiatives have to link to our mission.

Pascal van Ham, Tony's Chocolonely's Chocoloco (Head of Marketing)

Pascal van Ham, Tony's Chocolonely's Chocoloco (Head of Marketing)

How is Tony's business model different?

A handful of big multinationals in the chocolate industry have no idea where their cocoa is sourced from. Anonymity in the chain makes it very difficult for the big multinationals to feel responsibility for problems that are at the beginning of the chain. So first and foremost, we believe in a transparent chain.

We source directly from the cocoa farmers and pay them above the fair-trade premium that is already paid. We also believe there is much to gain by investing in long term relationships, strengthening the farmer organisations and improving quality and productivity so farmers have a better yield and a higher income. It’s our recipe for a slave free cocoa industry.

How are you building consumer awareness?

Chocolate is a product to enjoy. It’s about indulgence, about happiness, about giving a present. And this product should not be affected by a bitter aftertaste, but unfortunately, it is. Child slavery is a very serious problem.

We are crazy about chocolate, and serious about people

We need to tell consumers about the issue and our mission for 100% slave free chocolate, but combine that with joy and optimism so people can still enjoy the product. We are crazy about chocolate, and serious about people, and we bring those two worlds together. That is the strength of the brand.

Tony's doesn’t feel like a company or a brand. Tony is a person, and we are a group of people who all hold a certain view. Therefore, it is really a movement.

How is Tony's breaking rules in its marketing?

We don't follow category codes. Our founders were journalists and had no idea about the chocolate business. So when they introduced the milk chocolate bar they chose the colour red for the wrapper as they wanted an alarming colour to communicate the problems in the cocoa industry.

They later discovered that red was actually the category code for dark chocolate. I think this just illustrates that those category codes don't matter anymore. It was clearly visible on the packaging that this was milk chocolate anyway but the red wrapper was something of a wake-up call for consumers.

What is the media strategy?

We have a principle not to use traditional media. We believe in pull marketing and not in push marketing. We want to have a direct relationship not only with the cocoa farmers but also with consumers.

We’re fair and not so square.

For example, a traditional chocolate bar is divided into even pieces. Yet the whole chocolate chain is unequally divided and unfair. We wanted to make a statement by representing this unequal chain with an unequally divided bar. In that way, our chocolate bar tells our mission. We're fair and not so square.

Tony's unequally divided chocolate bar.

Tony's unequally divided chocolate bar.

What are the company values?

Our four brand values are the same as our internal values and they are: Be wilful, outspoken, entrepreneurial and have a little fun along the way.

An example of 'a little fun along the way', is that during the on-boarding programme, everyone is given a Choco title. Our CEO is the Chief Chocolate Officer. Even when he met the royal family, he introduced himself with that title. Not taking ourselves too seriously is an important part of our culture.

How does the company foster a challenger culture?

Our challenger culture starts from the beginning when new people start at the company, and it’s something that's nurtured all the time.

When people join we have an on-boarding programme called the chocolate college. In their first week, new entrants learn all about the problems in the industry and our mission, and also how chocolate is made through making their own chocolate bar.


What is the most important lesson you've learned as a marketer?

It’s so important to focus on the company's position and to not be distracted or change it. We don't use paid media for example. Which is challenging because it's easy to think that if we had a campaign on television, then we could increase our brand awareness, and grow so much faster.

If you really take a stand however, people will move around you. It’s so important to have principles, believe in them, and stick to them, because in the end, it strengthens your position.

That's the most important thing I've learned.