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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Chocolate bars come in all shapes and sizes, but what makes one popular and another a delicious dud? A new study on the wonderfully diverse world of chocolate finds people pay more attention to the packaging than the actual taste of their purchases. Researchers say, for smaller companies, a gold wrapper and interesting backstory is the key to big-time profits.

Food scientists at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences find consumers are drawn to a number of desirable characteristics when they browse the candy aisle. Among the top features that catch a buyer’s eye include gold foil, ornate labels, and an enticing message which supports a cause or features a person’s name.

Researchers add this is particularly important for the emerging craft chocolate market, which revolves around small businesses making their products from scratch using fine flavor cocoa beans. Lead researcher Allison Brown explains that these companies are becoming more popular with people looking for new candy experiences. It’s a similar trend like what’s taking place in the craft beer and coffee industries.

“The U.S. craft chocolate market is estimated to be worth $100 million and growing,” Brown says in a university release. “However, many companies are small startups with few employees. They do not have marketing teams to guide their brand strategies. Our findings will help them make decisions that could have a large impact on their businesses.”

Picking out a winning wrapper

Researchers examined what makes these products stand out from the rest using a method called projective mapping. The technique has consumers group products on a sheet of paper by their similarities and differences. They can also add words to explain their grouping choices.

The participants grouped 47 different products into categories like “artisan,” “Halloween candy,” “special occasion,” and several others. Volunteers then tasted these chocolate bars, which were split into three groups. Those include “mainstream” (Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bar), “premium” (Lindt Cocoa Dark Chocolate Bars, Green and Black’s Organic Dark Chocolate Bars, and Endangered Species Dark Chocolate with Sea Salt and Almonds), and “craft” (Dandelion Chocolate 70% Ambanja, Madagascar).

People then gave their opinions about the taste, packaging, and labels; noting which they believe are appealing and unappealing. Overall, the results find tasters loved every chocolate sample put in front of them.

“It’s hard to make chocolate undesirable,” Brown points out.

The researcher adds however their analysis goes beyond just taste, as respondents gave more weight to how their candy is presented to them. Nearly all the consumers said the craft chocolate samples were novel and exciting, comparing them to coffee and wine in terms of their packaging and flavors. Products featuring thick gold foil won big, with one participant saying it’s “like getting a golden ticket from Willy Wonka.”

Chocolates with a cause can help or hurt sales

So if taste isn’t going to be the deciding factor for consumers, can an appealing sales pitch bring in profits? Researchers find labels that preach how their products focus on sustainability draw mixed reviews from customers. Products featuring “Organic” and “Fair Trade” labels interested some participants, with some saying they’d pay more to get these chocolates. Others however, distrusted the labels and avoided buying sustainable sweets.

Candy bars with a charitable cause on the other hand are big winners with chocolate lovers. Products like the Endangered Species bar, which say that proceeds support wildlife conservation, are a big hit with consumers.

“Participants viewed it as a guilt-free indulgence,” Brown explains.

When all else fails though, just make your chocolates the most expensive on the market. The study reveals products with higher price tags were considered some of the best sweets to buy.

“These are more sophisticated, so my brain just thinks they must taste better, so they must be high quality,” one participant reports. “Also, they’re more expensive.”

“Consumers picked up on the exclusive and specialty nature of these products,” Penn State’s Helene Hopfer says. “The findings highlight the importance of a story behind the product and show that consumers derive a purpose and joy from chocolate. We also determined the importance of availability, price and packaging as proxies for perceived chocolate quality.”

The study appears in the journal PLOS ONE.

About Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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