- Food, beverage & FMCG
- 2020 - Active
- Verlinvest contact
- Ben Black
Since then, Tony’s Chocolonely has dedicated its efforts to raising awareness about inequality in the chocolate industry. The team leads by example by building direct, long-term relationships with cocoa farmers in Ghana and Ivory Coast, paying them a higher price, and working together to solve the underlying causes of modern slavery. Tony’s Chocolonely has grown to become the largest chocolate bar brand in the Netherlands and is now available globally, with a growing presence in the UK, USA, and Germany. Verlinvest invested in Tony’s in March 2020.
Read on to see what Verlinvest’s Ben Black – who led our investment in Tony’s Chocolonely alongside JamJar Investments, and sits on the company’s Supervisory Board – has to say about why Tony’s initially caught Verlinvest’s attention and what makes it such a unique brand:
How did you first hear about Tony’s Chocolonely, and what got you excited about investing in the business?
Ben: At Verlinvest, we’re looking for big categories with fundamental problems that require changes in consumer behavior for the better. So, what we saw with Tony’s was the prospect of reinventing and redistributing value in the way that the cocoa supply-chain had been built, while bringing to a global audience a great, fun, and tasty product, with a serious message. 1.56 million children are working in conditions of modern slavery in West Africa to make the chocolate we eat without really considering where it comes from, or the impact it has – and Tony’s was created to fix that. What resonated was that, from day one, Henk Jan [Tony’s Chief Chocolate Officer] talked about building an impact company that makes chocolate, rather than a chocolate company that makes an impact. We want to build companies and brands that exist to make the world a better place.
We were attracted to a great product, a great team, and a great brand – matched with the opportunity to change the chocolate supply-chain for the better and create awareness for a major industry-wide problem. We are strong believers in using fun and engaging brands to shine a light on problems within CPG and offering consumers a better alternative, to reduce the collateral damage of our consumption.
What was unique about Tony’s Chocolonely’s approach to this issue within the cocoa industry?
Ben: We felt like they were the boldest, most committed to providing a viable, scalable solution, and importantly, were targeting mainstream consumers where they can have the most impact at scale. They were the only ones who were being fully transparent about the extent of the problem, about their willingness to change the industry, and in their commitment to raising the bar for chocolate companies everywhere – not just at Tony’s. They differ from others because Henk Jan is not just trying to create a nice brand with great marketing but is fundamentally trying to instigate industry-wide change – which is a very different proposition.
The Tony’s team has been incredibly thoughtful in codifying a scalable solution to address root causes through Tony’s Five Sourcing Principles (which aims to create a more equal supply chain). Critically, they’re addressing the underlying poverty in cocoa-growing communities by paying a living wage through Tony’s Premium, to farmers’ co-ops in Ghana and Ivory Coast. Lots of other brands are doing great work here too, but Tony’s has formalized its approach and opened up its supply-chain to others. Any mission-ally can source Tony’s 100% traceable beans – to make chocolate 100% slave-free – which is real commitment to the cause, unlike any other!
Are we likely to see more brands taking on major societal issues in future, do you think – inspired by the likes of Tony’s Chocolonely?
Ben: I hope so! I think Tony’s is very much at the forefront of a new crop of brands that are built around a problem, to solve it – rather than being built around a product, and then solving for the collateral damage that that product creates. Companies like Tony’s aren’t riding a short-term wave based on consumer trends; they are fundamentally transforming categories for the better. One of my favorite quotes from Henk Jan has always been “We’re not a social enterprise. We’re an enterprise. And other companies are anti-social enterprises.”
We also have deep experience with purpose-driven consumer brands – our investment in Tony’s came off the back of partnerships with Oatly and Vita Coco, for example. We invested alongside our friends at JamJar (founders of the innocent drinks company) who are a core part of our network of impact-focused partners: we both want to bring together this global community of mission-led entrepreneurs in order to share best practices, contacts and to support each others’ successes and challenges. I personally feel lucky to be able to partner with this new generation of entrepreneurs that are questioning the traditional status quo and asking why companies can’t be good from the start. It may sound cliché, but we strongly believe transparent brands, good businesses and ethics can all tie together in a virtuous circle, reinforcing success and winning consumer trust.
How would you characterize our partnership with Tony’s since that initial investment?
Ben: When we met Tony’s, they had become the no.1 chocolate brand in the Netherlands, in a very short space of time. We were excited about the performance of this local hero, the super high quality of the product and the impressive leadership team, who were determined to make this company work on a global scale.
I’m proud that, since then, we’ve really backed Tony’s to be ambitious and outspoken with their brand – across marketing, product, and international expansion. For example, with their ‘Sweet Solutions’ campaign, which saw Tony’s replicate the chocolate bars of other major chocolate companies with 100% slave-free chocolate. Another key point is internationalization: supporting the company closely with launches in Germany and rollout in the U.S – for example, with Andreas Pfluger, ex-CEO of Lindt North America joining the company’s Board.
Another few milestone moments to mention were the acquisition of Tony’s first owned and vertically integrated factory last year, as well as becoming one of the top sellers in Whole Foods Market in the U.S.
We’re currently helping the team to think about digital migration as well as personalization and product extension into different formats… but more to come on that!
What do you think makes consumers really love the company?
Ben: I think one of the reasons is that it’s a fun brand, tackling a serious problem. And that’s our aim too, right? People need to love what we stand for, our boldness in colorful packaging, innovative flavors, the in-store experience in Amsterdam, in order for them to engage with the real-life issues that we’re trying to change. It’s chocolate after-all – it’s pure indulgence so it has to be fun!
Where do you see Tony’s in a few years’ time?
Ben: For me, it’s about building a global brand, and showing others that being successful doesn’t mean compromising on ethics. I think Tony’s is really gaining recognition for the level of impact that it’s creating, and the potential to do that in multiple continents and build a multi-generational impact brand is really exciting. We want to show the world that this can be done: a true impact brand can be globally successful, whilst solving the collateral damage some existing models have created.
This is just the beginning and Tony’s goals remain to 1) continue raising awareness 2) lead by example, and 3) act to inspire others in the industry to change. Last year (2020/2021), Tony’s removed 366 children from hazardous labor conditions and almost 8,921 farmers received Tony’s Premium for their cocoa, ensuring they are paid a Living Wage. Hundreds of thousands of people still work in hazardous conditions within the supply chain, and it’s our job to help get that number to zero.
You can read more in Tonys’ annual FAIR reports here.