The Cracks in Cadbury Creme Eggs Are a Lesson to Marketers
“The consumer isn’t a moron, she is your wife’. There are times when only a David Ogilvy quote will do, and this week’s sweet-toothed scandal involving Mondelez International and iconic Easter treat, the Creme Egg, is just such a time. The news that the perennial favourite sugar bomb will no longer be made using Cadbury Dairy Milk chocolate and that multipacks have shrunk from six to five eggs has left chocoholics and international news outlets shell-shocked. As marketers and ad agencies chase engaged consumers and brand evangelists, this recent meltdown is a timely lesson that the smart and switched-on shopper is probably best not treated like a total halfwit.
First though, I do want to acknowledge that it’s not as if the Creme Egg catastrophe is the most distressing world event to occur in the past week. A sense of perspective, however, has never been one of the Twitterati’s strong points, so it’s not too surprising that sugar-crashing fans took to social media to voice their outrage. The British press, obviously, was all over the story but so too were international outlets like CNN, the Sydney Morning Herald, the South China Morning Post and Today.
Perhaps Mondelez, the snack food Kraft Foods spin-off, was hoping that the ‘you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs’ cliché would work out, but unfortunately for them the timing and implementation of the changes has broken fans' hearts instead. They might, for example, have gotten away with sneaking the chocolate formula changes past consumers had they not also changed their multi-packs at the same time. While the former is a more subtle change that would require people to pause and pay attention to the taste and texture of what they’re eating, the latter is a clunking, obvious departure.
Until now Cadbury Creme Egg multi-packs have contained six eggs, echoing the layout and evoking the memory of a traditional egg carton. It’s a strong association. Five eggs breaks that immediately, alerting nostalgic shoppers that something has changed about their childhood favourite. Curiously enough, the world of psychology and neuroscience have found large differences in the way we process and feel about odd and even numbers, even interpreting them as ‘male’ (odd) and ‘female’ (even), so the downsizing is as qualitative as it is quantitative.
So far, so obvious – buyers are alerted to the fact that they’re getting less for the same amount of money. The never-ending love-in between ad advertisers and behavioural economics seems to have lulled the industry into the comfortable belief that consumers are a mass of nudgeable, unthinking sheep that's not the whole story. If you can disrupt someone's attention, you get them thinking. British consumers have been on amber alert for changes to their beloved Cadbury products ever since the brand was taken over by Kraft Foods (now Mondelez International) back in 2011 in an unpopular buyout. The multipack shrinkage simply nudged them into Code Red. No wonder the hyper-engaged fans spotted the recipe change, which then led reporters from The Sun to track down the real story from a Kraft spokesperson.
The big stinger, though, is in the delicious comment that, "The Creme Egg has never been called the Cadbury's Dairy Milk Creme Egg. We have never played on the fact that Dairy Milk chocolate was used.” I’m kind of in awe of the unrepentant, loophole-jumping, smugness of the comment. Talk about sticking to the letter of the law. And it’s just the sort of thing that’s going to make fervent fans feel as if they’re being treated like idiots and drive them further into righteous indignance.
It's hard to tell what the long term effects will be on sales. After all Cadbury has already bounced back from the negativity around rounding out the shape of Dairy Milk chunks in order to shave off 4g and fit within UK government guidelines. On the other hand four measly grammes is almost imperceptible in comparison to a discrete egg-shaped blob of sugar. Plus it seems that austerity-stretched shoppers are already keenly tuned in to value for money as they shift to cheaper choccie brands.
Of course, this is just the latest example of the public picking up on unwanted change to a much-loved product. Back in the 1980s, Coca-Cola was forced to backtrack on a change to its recipe after just three months thanks to the backlash. Hell, Creme Egg-gate isn’t even the only example to hit the headlines this week. Big budget Tang Dynasty costume drama ‘The Empress of China’ was pulled from Chinese TV at the behest of censors at the beginning of the year. It’s just been reintroduced with bizarrely closely-cropped headshots to remove from sight the actresses’ cleavages – driving fans online to mock the so-called ‘Saga of Wu’s Breasts’ with ridiculous crops of everyone from Mao Zedong to the Venus De Milo. Oh and viewer ratings have plummeted. These days with hyper-connected, hyper-engaged consumers who have, en masse, perfected the art of semi-ironic hysterical outrage, the ties between product and marketing are closer than ever. And if people love your product too much… well… you could be screwed.