How chocolate makers inspire devotion from consumers on Valentine’s Day

In the U.S., Valentine’s Day is almost always sweet, quite literally.

According to the National Confectioners Association, 92% of Americans celebrate Valentine’s Day with chocolate and candy. It’s a holiday that represents about $4 billion in sales, according to IRI statistics cited by the trade group, and the sector is anticipating 5% sales growth this year from 2022.

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Starting in mid-January, store shelves are crammed with decorative and heart-shaped boxes of chocolates. According to Instacart, chocolates are the item most likely to be purchased through the grocery delivery platform on Valentine’s Day. And several manufacturers, ranging from those that make everyday favorites including Hershey and Mars, to those that make high-end gift boxes of chocolates, cash in on the holiday,

So how do high-end confectioners break through the sea of choices on Valentine’s Day?

Mark Wakefield, senior vice president of marketing at Ferrero, said they generally prepare for Valentine’s Day 15 months in advance — meaning they’re already looking at ideas for 2024.

Ferrero has a large portfolio of recognizable brands in the U.S. that are ideally suited for Valentine’s Day. Its boxes of Ferrero Rocher candies have clear plastic through which consumers can see the iconic gold foil-wrapped pieces. And its Fannie May chocolates feature the trademark red bow and the script brand name.

“Packaging is critical,” Wakefield said. “It’s queen. It’s queen, it’s critical. It has to be on the shelf, and it has to pop.”

Packaging is among the factors that have helped Ferrero grow its Valentine’s Day market share. Wakefield said the company’s premium chocolate brands — Ferrero Rocher and Fannie May — sold $57 million worth of chocolates during Valentine’s Day 2022. That represented 17% growth compared to 2021 figures, he said. This year, some retailers have increased the amount of Ferrero chocolates they’re selling by nearly a third.

Godiva, which makes about 13% of its annual North American sales during Valentine’s Day each year, according to CEO Nurtac Afridi, has more than a century of history and name recognition to bolster its sales. But with its diversified retail strategy — bringing the brand out of boutiques and into retailers ranging from c-stores to big box stores — there are more places where the brand needs to attract attention. In the last year, Afridi said, Godiva increased its points of distribution by 26%.

“We believe that not only our beautiful boxes, but also the inside of Godiva, is very much preferred by our customers for its attractiveness, its high-quality premiumness,” Afridi said. “You want to impress. You want to share the love.”

Inside the heart-shaped box

Ferrero does a lot of research on what consumers are looking for on Valentine’s Day. Some of this is based on the emotions that consumers are hoping to communicate with their Valentine’s Day sweets. But it’s also based on the types of candies that consumers are looking for.

“When you’re gifting someone for Valentine’s Day, you want to give them something that you believe that they will love. And that’s where we have to stay with a universal taste,” Wakefield said.

He said people in the U.S. tend to love the taste of nuts, making hazelnut-forward Ferrero Rochers an easy go-to. Fannie May’s Pixies, which are caramel-coated pecans covered in chocolate, also fit the bill.

At Godiva, Afridi said six of its top 10 chocolate flavors at any season are classic flavors — several of the dark, milk and white chocolate varieties will appear in any variety box at any time of year.

But a variety of flavors and new ideas also attract consumers.

Wakefield said Ferrero Rocher has variety boxes, which mix the gold-wrapped hazelnut chocolate balls with almond-forward white creamy Rafaello balls and dark chocolate Rondnoir candies. Fannie May, which also has more than a century of confectionery history, has a wide variety of premium-filled chocolates available in its variety boxes.

Godiva’s variety boxes include seasonal favorites — people tend to want berry flavors at Valentine’s Day, while they are more interested in takes on peppermint at Christmas, Afridi said — with on-trend new chocolates developed by the company’s master chocolate makers. Some of these new pieces feature edible glitter and different colors.