In 2006, two brothers inspired by the lost art of making chocolate “from bean to bar” began a series of handcrafted chocolate experiments in their Brooklyn apartment. No one, the story goes, had yet paved the path of artisan chocolate-making prior to them, so the brothers needed to improvise with their equipment. They MacGyver-ed a rice grinder from India to grind cacao beans, and since there was no such thing as small-batch chocolate makers at the time, they found they needed to innovate the process every step of the way. From this innovation a successful business, Mast Brothers Chocolate, was born.
Since then, Mast Brothers Chocolate has grown to two brick-and-mortar locations—one in Brooklyn, one in London—and another soon to launch in Los Angeles. They’ve been incredibly successful at grabbing media attention for the quality of their packaging (Vanity Fair described it as “not unlike unwrapping a gift”) and for the quality of their $10-a-bar chocolate.
All along the way, the brothers, with their Amish-style beards and clothing, boasted of authenticity and making chocolate from scratch—from bean to bar.
Only, it appears that their story wasn’t entirely true.
At the start of their business, the Mast Brothers bought Valrhona chocolate from Europe (couverture), melted it down, and made it into bars—something they'd only admitted publicly after a recent investigation by a blogger, published on DallasFood.org. And it also appears that they weren't truthfully innovating anything, using tips from the chocolate community to hone their craft and transforming their image "from bros to beards," reflecting a sort of stoic reverence. All of this has been fueling a controversy, picked up over the past week by a surplus of media outlets from Eater to The New York Times.
Vox provides the best explanation:
… the Mast Brothers story isn't just getting widespread attention because an artisanal chocolate scandal is inherently kind of funny if handcrafted chocolate isn't your livelihood.
It's striking a nerve because it lays bare the fact that part of what you're paying for, when you buy a $10 artisanal chocolate bar, is the story behind it.
But if it's all an act—if what really happened is that two guys saw artisanal food as an emerging trend and decided to get in on it, rather than figuring out a revolutionary chocolate-manufacturing process through trial and error—that raises a question about what the exorbitant price of a chocolate bar is really buying.
The scandal tells a perfect story about the future of marketing. Consumers today want authenticity and transparency, and they’re willing to pay a lot for a product—and buy into a brand—when they feel comfortable believing those things exist. But once authenticity and transparency are betrayed, the damage to a brand can be difficult to repair.
It’s no secret that consumers are now seeking more engagement from brands than ever before, and their demands around the expectation of transparency will only grow. The only thing the Mast Brothers did wrong was adopt an overconfident stance and fail at consumer transparency. If all marketers are storytellers, then the stories they tell had better be true. The reputation of the brand they represent hangs on it.
In the end it’s up to consumers to make good decisions about which things to buy and which brands to buy into. Marketing certainly won’t go away, but the more consumers push for authenticity and transparency, the more marketing will need to evolve—the more brands will be held accountable for telling stories that aren’t just built to resonate with and persuade consumers, but are built around a bit of integrity, too.
And clarity where clarity is due:
The recent crop of Mast Brothers critics, taste-testing it against Hershey's chocolate, aren't quite creating comparable taste-tests. Mast Brothers chocolate has reportedly been made bean-to-bar since the end of the brothers' early "experimental" Valrhona days. Bean-to-bar chocolate is fine, minimally-processed chocolate where all the magic—from the grinding of the bean to the molding of the bar—occurs in one spot and under the care of one small group of dedicated people. It's not supposed to taste like Cadbury or Hershey.