Have you ever found yourself staring blankly at rows of seemingly endless blocks of chocolate, in some kind of Willy Wonka trance, while doing the weekly grocery shop?
Peppermint, fruit and nut, coconut, caramel, strawberry, orange, honeycomb, chilli, white, dark, cocoa-intense, dairy-free, organic – it can be overwhelming.
Forrest Gump, it seems, was right: “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get!”
So what chance does an iconic Australian brand have making inroads to the $600 million block chocolate market without compromising on flavour, texture and quality?
How can you modernise classic flavours that Australians have known and loved for generations?
Monash University joined Darrell Lea on this adventure to answer those very (tasty) questions.
When history and innovation meet
Darrell Lea has been part of the Australian fabric for close to 100 years. After going into voluntary administration in 2012, the company has been restructured under new ownership – and with a new vision.
While eight out of 10 Australians know Darrell Lea, many might not be aware that, in 2019, the company produced its very first chocolate block. As of a few months ago, 80 per cent of its business was in the liquorice market.
Darrell Lea conducted its first research in more than 90 years to try to determine where to position the company in the minds of consumers.
The research identified a prospect for Darrell Lea to enter the block chocolate market.
“We make liquorice, and we make it world-class. In fact, we make about 40,000km of liquorice a year – enough to be wrapped around the world once," Tim Stanford, Marketing Director of Darrell Lea, said. "Our aim was to transform this flavour and reputation into a milk chocolate block.”
“But in order to create that sensory experience, we had to get our pip structure right and differentiate ourselves from the competition.
“Australians have a rabid hunger for block chocolate, and that's part of the reason why 92 per cent of households across the country consume block chocolate in some way, shape or form, and is one of the biggest and fastest-growing retail sectors.”
Darrell Lea needed to create an exceptionally good product and present it in a way that would compel consumers to reach for it off the shelf.
A meaty challenge
Darrell Lea wanted to give consumers a real block chocolate experience and, simultaneously, look for ways to carry many of its classic products into Australian households.
“We know that Australians are the biggest meat eaters in the world, behind the USA – we’re chewers and chompers, and have a preference for chunkier versions of products compared to Europeans, for example, who tend to gravitate towards products that require less energy to consume. The wafer-thin European block chocolate is a great example,” Mr Stanford said.
“In our Rocklea Road block, getting marshmallow to actually stay in the chocolate mould, creating a marshmallow-filled chocolate block, is actually very hard.”
Breaking the mould
Monash University's Food Innovation's Lead Industrial Designer, Adam Norris, had the somewhat creative, yet challenging, task of exploring the ways to mould the chocolate block, reflecting Darrell Lea’s core product aims.
“We needed to create a product that was perceived as offering something generous," he said. "This process starts with how the block actually breaks. How do we present this chocolate block to make it stand out and provide consumer satisfaction?”
After months of drawing and testing, Mr Norris ended up with a structure that has larger pips (the individual pieces of chocolate that make up a block), contains seven rows of three pips, and weighs 180 grams. The standard chocolate block formation of six rows of four pips was perceived as being “less generous”.
“We’ve enabled Darrell Lea to produce a range of chocolate blocks in six to nine months, which is incredibly fast for a mainstream business."
“This makes a big difference in terms of meeting the flavour and texture demands of our audience. We were really surprised at the difference it makes when you’ve got a big piece of chocolate full of inclusions opposed to a smaller pip of chocolate with less inclusions,” Mr Norris said.
From there, Mr Norris and the Monash Food Innovation team 3D-printed the chocolate blocks to the exact size and specifications (and even painted the mould to look like chocolate) for Darrell Lea to review.
Once validation was given, Darrell Lea reached out to food technologists and other global partners to create the injection-moulded trays that allowed the chocolate to mould correctly and have the ingredients spread evenly across the block.
“Monash’s work is essentially de-risking the process before Darrell Lea presses the green light and spends up to $100,000 on production,” Mr Norris said.
“We’ve enabled Darrell Lea to produce a range of chocolate blocks in six to nine months, which is incredibly fast for a mainstream business. Usually, this could take businesses up to two years to produce a chocolate block line at this scale and quality.”
Victorian success story
In August 2018, Darrell Lea bought Heritage Fine Chocolates, located in Rowville, about 35km from the Melbourne CBD, which has become the Darrell Lea centre of excellence. The facility has the capacity to produce block chocolate at scale and cater to the growing Australian market. The company will employ another 100 people before the year is out.
Mr Stanford says the work Monash has done allowed Darrell Lea to make product samples and fast-track and refine its thinking to create a winning formula.
“The only way we could have done this without Monash University’s support was through Germany – by either meeting with the mould–makers themselves or by going through their catalogue of moulds and selecting one off the shelf," he said. "But what we would have ended up with was a product like everything else on the market.
“Throughout the entire process, we’ve been incredibly fortunate to have surrounded ourselves with people that have a very can-do attitude.”
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