From wasabi to matcha flavours, Gillian Tett on what the British snack's reinvention in Japan tells us about cultural identities.
In December last year, Nestlé, the Swiss chocolate company based on the scenic shores of Lake Geneva, launched an online advertising campaign in Japan for a "whisky barrel aged" KitKat.
Its three layers of wafers were coated with chocolate made from "rare cacao nibs" aged for 180 days in whisky barrels from the island of Islay — "sacred ground" in Scotland for the drink, or so the Japanese marketing literature says.
This apparently gave the bar "a refined whisky aroma . . . and evokes a calm and relaxed feeling".
Does this sound weird or wonderful? Is it a display of culinary creativity by Japanese patissier Yasumasa Takagi, who developed the recipe? Or is it just a sign of the gimmicks that consumer goods companies will use to chase margins? Possibly all of the above.
But here is another way to interpret that Scottish-Swiss-Japanese innovation: as a symbol of the paradoxical nature of globalisation today — one that might point to how we consider cultural identities, labels and diversity. We live in an era marked by once-unimaginable levels of global interconnection, ushered in partly by digitisation.
That, after all, is the reason chocolate made from cacao aged in Scottish whisky barrels can be advertised so easily to Japanese consumers — and also discovered by me, an English journalist living in New York.
Yet as digital platforms, cargo ships and planes create connections (and contagions), we are also living through an anti-globalisation backlash, fuelled by economic pain, geopolitical tensions, populism and insecurity in the face of rapid technological change.
Many communities are trying to define their differences — or tribal allegiances — by embracing distinctive cultural signifiers, whether a flag, a language, national dress or a passport.
Food can reflect this: hot dogs, say, seem "American"; sushi, "Japanese". But the beauty of what we eat and drink is that it signals an oft-overlooked truth: while national labels can be powerful, they are rarely as fixed as people think.
On the contrary, what we feed ourselves with reveals that we live in a world where identities can be wonderfully fluid and ambiguous.
In the 20th century, some social scientists fretted that the world was heading for "Cocacolonisation": in which brands such as Coke dominated, crushing local competitors, in an expression of western corporate and political power.
But what observers realised subsequently was that this stereotype does not begin to capture what globalisation really does. Yes, cultural memes and objects spread: Coke bottles are found everywhere. But meanings change when they jump borders.
"Coke is often attributed meanings and uses within particular cultures that are very different from those imagined by its manufacturer," David Howes, an anthropologist, has written. These include smoothing wrinkles in Russia, turning copper into silver in Barbados, and reviving someone from the dead in Haiti, he notes.
Moreover, cultural trends do not move in one direction: as Birmingham's balti curries and California's avocado-laden "sushi" rolls show, they ebb back and forth between countries and cultures, creating new fusions all the time. When you look at a whisky barrel aged KitKat, in other words, you are not just seeing a chocolate snack.
KitKat's past offers clues to its globalised present. In 1862, a Quaker patriarch called Henry Rowntree bought a cocoa works in York, in the north of England. He soon moved it to an unlikely location — a former industrial iron foundry — and built a family sweet-making business with his brother Joseph. They later hired a French confectioner to develop recipes.
In the 1930s, the company launched the milk chocolate-covered wafer we now know as the KitKat after an employee suggested Rowntree's develop a treat "a man could take to work in his pack".
Wartime austerity forced a change in recipe and branding, but when life returned to normal KitKat's popularity boomed, under the tag "The biggest little meal in Britain". Rowntree's started exporting it to former British colonies. Its slogan, invented in the late 1950s, endures today: "Have a break, have a KitKat."
When KitKat arrived in Japan in the 1970s, it was sold as an exotic "British" treat to consumers who were developing a taste for foreign travel. Adverts in Japan showed "British people in distinctly British environments enjoying a KitKat break between action-packed activities," explained Philip Sugai, a business school professor in Japan, in a case study. "The message revolved around how Japanese people could enjoy life within the British context."
We didn't exactly tell Nestlé headquarters what we were doing, because we knew that it would sound so strange [to non-Japanese people]." - Masafumi Ishibashi, Nestlé manager in Japan
Yet despite being backed by the marketing muscle of multinational Nestlé, which acquired Rowntree's in 1988, KitKat struggled to compete with confectionery from local producers such as Glico.
"KitKat was seen as a foreign sweet and didn't look like it would ever be that popular," says Ross Rowbury, former president of public relations agency Edelman Japan.
Indeed, by the turn of the millennium, executives at Nestlé's regional office in Kobe, Japan, were asking themselves whether the KitKat brand had a future in the country. Nestlé thought the best way to boost sales was to target students.
But the company's ethnographic "fly-on-the-wall" research revealed Japanese teenagers did not like the "Have a break" tag. These students were so stressed by juken — the high-pressure exams that have such a bearing on their future — that the only "good break" they wanted was a long rest, not mere chocolate.
But then came a twist that no western corporate planner could have foreseen — or at least not with top-down economic models and consumer polls. In the early 2000s, Masafumi Ishibashi, a local Nestlé manager and his boss, Kohzoh Takaoka, heard that sales of KitKats on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu were surging between December and February. A trend had erupted among teenagers: students had noticed that the word "KitKat" sounded like the Japanese phrase "kitto katsu" ("you will overcome"), so they were giving each other the bar as a good-luck token to get through the ordeal of juken.
Initially, this seemed nothing more than a piece of teen trivia. The Kobe team did not dare replace the "Have a break" tag with "Kitto katsu" since they knew their bosses in Switzerland wanted to maintain consistency among global brands.
But Takaoka, Ishibashi and the rest of the team decided to try some subtler tactics to capitalise on the student craze and spread it beyond Kyushu. They put the phrase "Kitto sakura saku yo!" ("wishes come true!") in their Japanese adverts and asked hotels next door to exam centres to distribute KitKats to students with this slogan on a postcard.
The wording was astute: literally, it means "the cherry blossoms will bloom". "Because of the revered position that the cherry blossom season [holds] in Japan, blooming cherry trees [are] equated with abundance and success," Sugai wrote in his case study.
Ishibashi adds: "We didn't exactly tell Vevey [Nestlé headquarters] what we were doing, because we knew that it would sound so strange [to non-Japanese people]. We wanted to start quietly and see if it would work."
It did: sales of KitKats exploded among students across Japan. Teenagers redefined the bar as an omamori, the good-luck token sold at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. In January 2003, 34 per cent of Japanese teenagers told pollsters that a KitKat was their favourite good-luck charm, second only to an omamori blessed by a genuine Shinto priest. "It was amazing," recalls Ishibashi. "[Chocolate] became an omamori."
Eventually, the Japanese team told their bosses in Vevey what was going on. Wisely, executives in Switzerland allowed the team to continue with their cultural experiments. In Kobe, the KitKat packaging was redesigned to enable students to write good-luck messages on it, then Japan's postal service was persuaded to accept them as prepaid envelopes. "Nobody had ever done that before with the postal system," observed Sugai.
When Fukushima in eastern Japan was hit by a tsunami in 2011, people sent KitKat boxes to the workers tasked with reconstruction as a form of encouragement. Later, special boxes even became valid as train tickets under a scheme to boost tourism to Fukushima.
Nestlé's Kobe team broadened their experimentation beyond marketing. To UK consumers, a KitKat was a brown chocolate snack bar, but in 2003, the Kobe team created a pink KitKat by adding strawberry powder. They then made one with matcha (green tea) powder.
To date, they have created more than 300 local flavours, including wasabi, soy sauce, sake and even, in 2017, a limited-edition throat-lozenge flavour to soothe hoarse Japanese football fans cheering on the national team in the World Cup qualifying campaign.
A few of these innovations embraced non-Japanese flavours as novelties. However, most expressed a sense of Japanese identity through food. Over time, flavours became embedded in Japan's regional identities too, such as purple sweet potato from Okinawa or cheese from Hokkaido. These are now sold as tourist souvenirs (omiyage) at Japanese railway stations.
To British or Swiss tastes, such flavours can seem strange. Indeed, foreign tourists often buy them as souvenirs of Japanese, as opposed to British, culture. But strange or not, the craze had turned the bar into one of the top-selling chocolate brands in Japan.
The KitKat's rise there was so dramatic that Ryoji Maki, one of the Kobe executives who had introduced the wild new flavours, was promoted to KitKat's global brand manager in Vevey.
Then came the final twist: Nestlé launched the matcha KitKat in the UK, where it sold fairly well. Strictly speaking, this was not a made-in-Japan import: the bars are manufactured in Germany. But green-tea chocolate (the KitKat bars themselves are green) was not something British consumers could have imagined 50 years ago.
"What this story shows is that you have to think outside the mainstream," Maki told his baffled non-Japanese colleagues at a presentation — showing pictures of Japanese students clutching KitKat bars as omamori during exams. "You have to listen to consumers." Or, more accurately, recognise that consumer tastes are more creative than executives might understand.
Would the Rowntrees have approved of all this? I like to think so. Victorian England, after all, was another period of globalisation, when trends collided across borders, albeit often under unequal circumstances. As entrepreneurs, the Rowntrees knew that commercial success relies on having a flexible mind and being willing to pinch good ideas from any source.
Therein lies the biggest point of all — not so much about our taste buds but about how we imagine identity today. The 21st century is a fractured time when politicians promote narrow nationalisms, draw boundaries between "us" and "them" and express antagonistic cultural allegiances.
But what the journey of KitKat, like so many other foods, shows is that labels can also be malleable, in a good way.
Whatever you think of whisky barrel aged KitKats, we can all celebrate the fact that a brown chocolate bar has turned green, and become Anglo-Swiss-Scottish-Japanese along the way. Let us hope it can be a metaphor for politics as well.
Written by: Gillian Tett
© Financial Times