The Great Nostalgia Choc-off

Familiar, but clean: The battle cry for new chocolate brands


This week, we take a look at how powerful a selling point nostalgia has become, specifically focusing on chocolate.

Read on…

Something familiar this way comes

Take a look at these launches. 

  • In January this year, Harken Sweets introduced two chocolate bars called The Gooey One and The Nutty One. A quick look at the cross section of these two bars bring back memories of certain iconic brands, don’t they?

Image source: Harken Sweets


  • Gigantic Candy’s chocolate bar range, which launched in 2021, also has a bit of a throwback vibe, what with its retro packaging and cross section.

Image source: Gigantic Candy


  • Justin’s, of the nut butter snacks fame, will soon launch its line of Chocolate Candy Pieces, and they haven’t been too shy about positioning these products as “a clean swap for a nostalgic favorite”. 

Image source: PR Newswire

It’s pretty clear that they have a strong resemblance to some major mainstream brands we’re all very familiar with. But they are also pretty different – they’re all very vocal about their “clean” credentials.

All three brands highlight their use of recognizable and real/natural ingredients. They are low in sugar, but not completely devoid of it, and make up for it in innovative ways:

  • Harken’s hero ingredient for sweetness, so to speak, is dates (with a bit of monk fruit). The filling inside the bars is a dates-based caramel and the wrapping is an “oatsome chocolatey coating”. These bars are plant-based and high in fiber – 13 grams per bar. They are also GMO-free.

  • Gigantic’s bars have only 7g of sugar from brown sugar and a bit of sweetness from chicory root. The brand uses fairtrade chocolate, and while it doesn’t really call much attention to the fiber aspect, each bar has 9g.

  • Justin’s soon-to-be-launched range is USDA-certified organic, Non-GMO Project Verified, and uses Rainforest Alliance Certified cocoa. The outer crust even uses coloring from fruits and vegetables in place of synthetic dyes. 

So, what gives?

These three brands point to the growth of an interesting trend not just within confectionery, but across all food and drink categories – an intersection of nostalgia, clean label, and various on-trend claims to create sort of a knockoff product, but better. 

  • These brands are paying homage to iconic brands but are also indicating that they are here to dance – change the status quo and take on Big Chocolate, as it were.

  • They’re also trying to show that indulgence can be better, responding to the changing wants of consumers today.


And what consumers want is just… everything.

  • They want indulgence, because it’s good for you. Hartman Group's Health and Wellness 2023 study found that 50% of consumers considered indulgent foods to be an important part of a healthy and balanced diet.  

  • They want health, because it’s good for you. 31% from the aforementioned study looked for indulgences with functional benefits.

  • They want clean label, because – you guessed it – it’s good for you… well, better for you. And also, it may be better for the planet and other people and so on.   

Clean label in particular is appealing to a lot of consumers. Over the last couple of decades, the demand for healthier sweet treats resulted in a lot of low-cal, no-sugar innovation, but the products were not nearly as satisfying as the real McCoy. Taste and texture were issues as well as safety concerns of the replacement ingredients used. 

Over time, people started wanting to know exactly what was going into their food and decided they didn’t want anything they couldn’t pronounce or recognize. Consumers are becoming very pushy over transparency from brands, and this is something that is happening across categories, healthy or otherwise.

While people want indulgence, health continues to play an increasingly important role in food choices for consumers, though this has different meanings for different age groups. 

A study by the International Food Information Council (of 1,022 US consumers) found that “low in sugar” was among the leading definitions of healthy food, second only to “fresh”. Interestingly, consumers are okay with sugar, as long as it’s a small amount.

But when it came to different age groups, younger consumers were more likely to use “organic” and “natural” to define healthy food. 

12% of US respondents even said they followed a clean eating dietary pattern.

How consumers define healthy food

Familiarity breeds purchase intent

But the question still remains, why make your product so similar to an existing product?

Because there’s comfort in familiarity. The original brands can evoke feelings of nostalgia and security in good times and bad, and boy have we had a lot of those lately! Stressors and mental health concerns are quite high.

So having a connection with a product that brings back good memories – but with a little extra TLC – can be a powerful motivator for purchase. It doesn’t hurt to have a compelling story to tell, either. 

In my journey with innovation, I've adhered to a fundamental principle: when venturing into creating something new, it's about either introducing a 'new format, existing flavor' or a 'new flavor, existing format.' This approach taps into the power of nostalgia, akin to products like Lily's or Justin's Peanut Butter Cup, which evoke the familiar delight and format of a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup.

While these innovations may offer a different flavor profile, format, or ingredient angle, they maintain a connection to the well-loved aspects of the originals. Attempting a new format and a new flavor simultaneously can often be too distant for people to connect with; creating a balance is key. Stick with either a new format or a new flavor to avoid overwhelming potential consumers.

F&B industry expert Phaedra Ruffalo

While the three brands we saw earlier used familiar formats, Phaedra pointed to Canadian startup Mid Day Squares which chose to change up the format but with familiar flavors. The products espouse the clean label ideology of the others, along with the extras – added protein and fiber, vegan, fairtrade certified. Mid Day Squares has found a certain appeal among consumers for its non-traditional marketing style and its unapologetic stance of wanting to take on the big brands. The company is doing pretty well too, projected to earn US$30 million in 2023. 

Image source: Mid Day Squares

Like what you’re reading?

In fact, this intersection of nostalgia and new has earned its own moniker: newstalgia, where the familiar is incorporated into something fresh and new, with inspiration from pop culture across different decades. This has especially become popular with Millennial consumers, who want to experience the flavors and foods they grew up with, but without all the nasties that came along with them. These products and attitudes then get passed down to the next generation of consumers.

Particularly when it comes to kids, cleaner versions of indulgent treats do appeal significantly to parents. 

The landscape has shifted recently, especially for parents, who are now more actively involved in the decision-making process and purchasing of foods when their children start craving specific treats. Concerns about the high sugar and artificial additives in many traditional products partly fuel this shift.

As parents guide their children's food choices, they have the opportunity to shape their taste preferences. This can lead to children naturally leaning towards less sweet alternatives, fostering a healthier relationship with indulgent foods. It's a psychological approach that not only contributes to better health but also allows for the enjoyment of treats in a more wholesome manner.

F&B industry expert Phaedra Ruffalo

This affinity for nostalgic products isn’t just limited to a couple of Western markets – it’s happening around the world, but in different ways. They aren’t all linked to clean label either, though there are versions of better-for-you chocolate (a favorite claim is low sugar).

Nostalgia products here in Japan have been huge, leaving aside features like clean label. Here, nostalgia is not linked as much to years, but to eras (like which Emperor was around). And so the Shōwa era (1926-89) is the nostalgia boom in Japan right now. Millennials and Gen Z were born after that, so they missed all of it. But they’ve heard the stories from their parents about how it was Japan's heyday, the golden era when the economy was super. 

For the parents’ generation, it's nostalgia literally, because they lived through it. So when they see these nostalgia products come back on the market, they're interested. And then young people are excited about these products because they’ve heard of them or have maybe had them at their grandma's house. 

So it connects with both ends of the age spectrum.

Marc Matsumoto, GourmetPro expert, F&B consultant and culinary creator

Marc gave the example of Japanese chocolate brand Tirol, which launched its first product in 1962 – a chocolate bar with three segments filled with caramel priced at 10 yen. In 2022, the company rereleased the original chocolate to commemorate their 60th anniversary, but it proved so popular it’s still on sale.

In 2023, Tirol also introduced a range featuring the flavors emblematic of the Shōwa (1926-1989), Heisei (1989-2019), and Reiwa (2019-present) eras. Shōwa was represented by Cream Soda and Pudding. Heisei was represented by Tiramisu and Tapioca Milk Tea. Reiwa was represented by Maritozo and Pistachio.

Image source: Amazon Japan

What lies ahead?

In terms of these newer brands being challengers to existing brands, that’s still to be seen. Iconic brands are iconic for a reason – they taste great and we know and love that taste!

But price and availability play a vital role too. It’s hard for small brands to compete with the original brands on these aspects. If they can match the bigger brands on taste, then they may actually stand a chance.

But with all the certifications and clean ingredients, many of the newer brands tend to be more expensive, significantly in some cases. Reducing the price could mean compromising quality, which in turn would upset consumers. It is a delicate balance. 

In addition, many of the smaller brands would have to contend with the deep pockets and reach of the big players. So, there are choices that they would have to make as they expand, such as getting funding, mergers, or offering products that are clean but affordable.

As these startup brands build out into a national brand, they realize that they don't have the ability to scale to that size. So to continue to grow the business, they either need massive investment, in which case they're going to end up compromising their values, or they just need to sell the company and wash their hands of it. And I think that's where a lot of people make that choice. 

And at the same time, it's very difficult for a massive company to develop that kind of a niche brand in an authentic way. They could try, but it’s not easy when you have somebody's face behind it and their persona or other unique message. Oftentimes that type of business is not something that can be planned. The growth of those kinds of companies tends to happen organically; at a grassroots level.

So collaboration or consolidation could be beneficial to both parties.”

Marc Matsumoto, GourmetPro expert & F&B marketing consultant and culinary content creator


Nostalgia has proven to be a powerful tool to connect with consumers and that’s not going away anytime soon. Instead, we’ll see different definitions emerge and different brands innovating based on how consumers are evolving. But it’s very likely that the demand for clean label and better-for-you chocolate products will only get stronger. So there’s still a lot of space for new brands to innovate and create – as long as they taste great and are rooted in some familiar, comforting aspect. 

Want to explore innovation in chocolate?
Our experts can help!

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