Product Spotlight: The cookie stumbles

Nestle's Tollhouse bar takes off after the grab-and-go consumer -- but falls short of the mark

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The chocolate chip cookie has a rich and storied history that begins in 1930, when Ruth Wakefield, proprietress of the Toll House Inn in Massachusetts, ran out of baker's chocolate while preparing Butter Drop Do cookies for her guests. The resourceful Wakefield, who also happened to be a dietitian, grabbed a bar of Nestle's semi sweet chocolate, crumbled it into bits, and tossed the makeshift ingredient into her dough. To her surprise -- or perhaps not -- the bits were not completely melted when she removed the cookies from her oven. They melted in the mouths of her guests, though, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Yet history has a way of rendering most things obsolete. Not that America has ended its love affair with the Nestle Toll House Cookie. To the contrary, it is still the nation's favorite. But this cookie does have a problem: It's not made for convenient, on-the-go consumption.

So, not to be outdone by Wakefield, the equally resourceful Nestle has created the Tollhouse Candy Bar in a bid to grab the attention of the grab-and-go consumer. Made of a soft chocolate chip cookie encased in chocolate and caramel, the product hopes to enjoy a shelf presence as ubiquitous as the presumed occasions for eating it.

Insights

Although chocolate consumption in the U.S. has leveled off, Nestle discovered that consumers continue to eat more snacks on the go, particularly snack bars. It's worth noting that previous entries into this sector, notably Kit Kat and Twix Bars, wrapped chocolate around a hard cookie, whereas Nestle opted for Tollhouse's soft-cookie interior in order to better leverage the brand's equity.

To be sure, this is a brand with equity galore. Toll House is has provided consumers with good-tasting, high-quality chocolate chips for more than 50 years. If the brand no longer ensures warm and enjoyable moments among families, it certainly evokes memories of them. For some, Tollhouse cookies are as much about making them with mom or grandma as eating them.

Which isn't to suggest that taste is a secondary consideration, or that Tollhouse doesn't deliver it. Made from a proprietary blend of quality cocoa beans, the Tollhouse morsels have consistently managed to combine delicately creamy texture with unique chocolate flavor. Moreover, the flavor and texture -- the two key attributes of chocolate -- appeal to young and old consumers alike. Hershey chocolate may be more "American" in its taste profile, but the Nestle Crunch bar and its ilk are still forces to be reckoned with in the snack bar market.

The experience

Nestle Toll House Candy Bars are available in two varieties -- Soft and Chewy Cookie and Rich Brownie , and two formats: a pair of 1-oz. bars or individually wrapped 1-oz. bars in a resealable 11-oz. bag.

The resealable bag features the familiar yellow, red, and brown colors that are synonomous with Toll House semisweet morsels, but in this case, the Toll House name is overshadowed by the Candy Bar logo. The bag made available to us highlights what appears to be vintage photos or sketches from the ,'30's or ,'40's , images of mom baking or feeding the kids, and of children playing in the snow.

Although nostalgia is valuable, this particular set of images tended to polarize our survey respondents, who initially were excited about the candy bar concept. In particular, women spoke out about the package. "This is not the mom I remember and they are patronizing me," noted one irate respondent. Young adults, by comparison, simply didn't like the images. They couldn't relate. Some of the men didn't even notice them.

What consumers of all kinds tend to notice are the flavor, texture, and appearance of candy bars and cookies, all of which are critical to the perception of quality. For candy bars, quality is closely associated with the chocolate's color and sheen, aroma and texture, and the flavor that lingers in the mouth. Consumers of chocolate chip cookies, by comparison, are looking for a variety of textures, most notably of the "all chewy" and "crispy on the outside soft/chewy on the inside" variety

So how do Soft and Chewy Cookie Candy bars stack up? While the chocolate coating is dark and shiny, the product disappoints. The candy bar is dense, and an underlying layer of caramel is not differentiated from the innermost cookie layer. The latter, it should be noted, does not have a cookie taste. Rather, it has a mealy, oily base that prompted tasters to wonder why a manufacturer would go to the trouble of imbuing a candy bar with an energy bar's texture, yet not go the extra mile to provide the vitamins necessary to justify the calories. None of our testers believed that semisweet chips were contained in the bar. They maintained it tasted more like an energy bar, though not in a good way.

Since the product is not too sweet or overpowering, older consumers felt it was compatible with coffee or coffee break beverages. Younger consumers felt .why bother? Trying to be helpful, they were looking for health benefits to compensate for the underwhelming taste and texture.

Does the product deliver?

Since the Tollhouse brand is about trust, and about chocolate more so than cookies, the chocolate should taste good. While some older consumers thought the Toll House Candy Bar's chocolate was okay (Remember, many of them don't regularly eat cookies or candy bars.), younger consumers happily would have swapped the bar for a Snickers or a Twix.

How to make the idea bigger

This is a good idea for a product. However, this one needs to be revamped in order to deliver on its brand promise and meet the standards for chocolate chip cookies and candy bars. It is critical that there be differentiation among the coated, caramel and cookie layers. As for the cookie, it requires butter, browned sugar and vanilla notes rather than the mealy, undistinguished ones that currently characterize it. Rating: The product, does not deliver on its promise. Market potential

Not good -- for the line nor the category. The Toll House brand is strong enough to weather the bad execution, but how many chances will consumers give you?

 Sidebar:

Which has the bigger bite of the snack market , cookies or chocolates?

In 2002, U.S. sales of chocolate cookie wafers totaled $200 Million, with Kit Kat bars claiming 32 percent of the market, Twix 29 percent, and Reese's Sticks 28 percent. The annual growth rate for this category slowed from 8.7 percent in 2000 to 3.7 percent in 2002, but cookie wafers are still the fastest-growing chocolate candy after seasonal items.

Although U.S. chocolate consumption varies from year to year, it has averaged about 4.2 lbs of cocoa per capita since the early 90s. In 2002, the average consumer ate about 11.6 pounds of chocolate, up 4.5 percent from 2001. Per capita retail spending on chocolate was up slightly, to $46.51 per consumer, an upturn of 0.3 percent over 2001.

In the world of packaged chocolate chip cookies, total sales reached $1.03 billion in 2002. The top-selling brands were Nabisco Chips Ahoy, Keebler Chips Deluxe, all shelf stable items. Sales for refrigerated dough totaled $350 Million in 2002, with Pillsbury driving 66 percent of the market and Nestle 30 percent.

Looking at the retail class of trade, the gross profit margin for a candy product is about 42 percent in the convenience store market, while a packaged sweet is 34 percent. Other retail classes of trades typically follow suit, with the candy aisle will typically outperforming packaged sweets in gross profit margins.

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