Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Hotel Chocolat And Brand Positioning Online

Hotel Chocolat, Kensington, W8
Hotel Chocolat, Kensington, W8 (Photo credit: Ewan-M)
We were talking positioning brands online the other day on the Business Breakfast – it's linked here if you fancy a listen in - about the changes in the rules that taking an ‘offline’ brand to the Web entail. As part of that chat, we looked at some brands that had moved the other way – digital brands that have made their way onto the high street. One of the more high profile successes at this has been Hotel Chocolat.

I am, and always have been, a huge fan of this company. Started by founder Angus Thirlwell and co-founder Peter Harris as a business selling mints in 1988, by 2003 the company had become known as ChocExpress, a catalogue-based mail order business (with a website) that included a chocolate tasting club – a concept that was to be core to Hotel Chocolat and a club that today has over 100,000 members.

The trouble was that ChocExpress didn’t reflect the luxurious image that Thirlwell was after for his premium chocolates. And it was that dissatisfaction that led to the product I first encountered in my mum’s living room many years back. It was a luxuriantly packed box of chocolates, more like a hat box than a chocolate box, with a ‘Hotel Chocolat’ room card-key and a ‘do no disturb’ sign to hang on the door while you had your one-one experience with that box of very fine chocolates indeed. The chocolates had individual recipes, lavish descriptions and a little card for you to take tasting notes and send them back to Hotel Chocolat.

Here was an online business with a two-way customer communication mechanism built into its very DNA long before everyone had started talking social media.

The brand, and its promise, was incredibly strong. It was unique, clearly differentiated and communicated throughout the product offering – and the website which took over from the catalogue as the premier conduit for reaching customers. Although Hotel Chocolat was quick to open high street stores, it has been the Internet business that has driven the incredible success of the company which now employs over 800 people and has a real Hotel Chocolat in the Caribbean and its own cocoa plantation to boot. The company has launched a range of sub-brands, including boutique cocoa outlet Roast+Conch and Cocoa Juvenate, a range of cocoa-themed beauty products. There are over 70 stores in the UK’s high streets, five in the US and three in the Middle East. You can nip down to Mall of the Emirates if you fancy a chocolate rush par excellence - the only shame is that Hotel Chocolat's boozy chocolates don't get a look in. Because they, my dears, are very good indeed.

And that website’s still there, reflecting that brand positioning as strongly today as it did almost ten years back when I opened a posh-looking box of chocolates in my mum’s living room and was transfixed by the painfully smart marketing that met my eyes just before I lifted the paper covering to reveal the rows of little shinies underneath.

You know, I might be lying about the positioning. It might just be all about the chocolate after all…
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