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Long established as one of the UK's favourite chocolate bars, KitKat is also a flagship of Nestlé's international confectionery portfolio, sold in more than 100 countries. It is especially popular in Japan, where it has established a reputation as a good luck charm for exam candidates. Around 600m KitKats are manufactured each year at Nestlé Confectionery's main UK factory in York, and there are smaller factories in several other countries. In addition to its traditional milk chocolate and wafer format, the brand is also available in different markets in a bewildering variety of additional flavours, ranging from the comparatively mundane peanut butter to more exotic watermelon or sweet potato. KitKat celebrated its 80th anniversary in 2015, but received arguably an even bigger honour in 2013 from Google, which named that year's version of Android software after the chocolate bar.
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KitKat is one of the world's top-selling confectionery brands, and the flagship for the Nestle confectionery portfolio, accounting for as much as an estimated 40% of the group's total chocolate sales. Globally, the Guinness Book of Records estimated in 2010 that 17.6bn KitKat fingers are sold every year, with 540 consumed every second. That year, Nestle said global sales were in excess of CHF 1.4bn, equivalent to €1.2bn. UK sales were estimated at £243m in 2015 by Euromonitor. One key factor in its success is that it is regarded by retailers and consumers in several countries as both as a confectionery bar (in its four-finger variety) and as a biscuit (the two-finger version), selling equally strongly through both impulse-purchase confectioners, and home-supply supermarkets. The main KitKat product is supported in most markets by lead variant KitKat Chunky, a jumbo-sized single-finger wafer wrapped in thicker chocolate. This was first introduced in the UK in 1999, selling more than 250m units in its first year, making it one of Nestlé's most successful confectionery launches of the decade. It has since been rolled out in virtually all Nestle's main markets.
The brand is especially popular in Japan, where it is known as "Kitto Katto", which is similar in sound to a Japanese phase which translates roughly as "sure to win". Japanese students traditionally purchase a KitKat before sitting their annual examinations in January as a good luck charm. Every winter since 2003, Nestlé Japan has sold the chocolate packaged with a warm scarf. According to the company, around a quarter of examinees are likely to bring KitKat chocolate or the scarf with them as a lucky mascot to their exams. In 2007, the brand was the focus of a large marketing campaign coordinated by JWT in partnership with the country's newly privatised post office network, whereby customers could send KitKat good luck tokens by mail. The project, which involved opening up a completely new and exclusive distribution channel for KitKat through the post office, was awarded the media Grand Prix at the 2009 Cannes Lions awards. In 2014, Nestle opened the first ever standalone KitKat store in Tokyo, the KitKat Chocolatory, within a Seibu department store, selling a wide variety of variants including three available only from this single outlet. Several more stores have followed. In 2017, Nestle opened a new factory in Japan, its first for over 25 years, just to make different flavoured KitKats for the local market.
KitKat is also one of the top-selling confectionery bars in the US, although it is produced and marketed there under license by Hershey, and the American KitKat Bar looks a little different from its international cousins. In 2013, Google teamed up with both Nestle and Hershey to agree a promotional alliance, whereby the new version of the Android mobile operating system would be baptised as KitKat. The reason was that, like hurricanes, incarnations of Android are letter-coded, with the latest release becoming version K. For ease of reference, Google has assigned sweet-themed names to each version - most recently Honeycomb, Ice Cream Sandwich and Jelly Bean. Version K was set to be called Key Lime Pie, but according to John Lagerling, director of Android global partnerships, "we realised that very few people actually know the taste of a key lime pie. One of the snacks that we keep in our kitchen for late-night coding are KitKats. And someone said: 'Hey, why don't we call the release KitKat?'" According to Nestle marketing chief Patrice Bula, it took just 24 hours to agree the deal, and then tie in Hershey. No money changed hands, but more than 50m KitKat wrappers featured the Android KitKat logo in celebration of the arrangement.
In recent years Nestle has tested numerous "limited edition" promotional formulations, including orange, mint, white chocolate and even red KitKats. The range varies widely from country to country. Five-finger KitKats were tested in 1998. In 2003 the company introduced another variant, KitKat Kubes, bite-sized chunks sold in bags. These were relaunched in 2011 in a slightly different formulation as KitKat Pop Chocs, or KitKat Ball in some international markets. KitKat Caramac, which combines the traditional KitKat with another Nestlé Rowntree bar product, has been successful in several markets. In the UK, Nestlé introduced spin-off brand KitKat Senses in 2008, supported by a lavish ad campaign featuring pop group Girls Aloud. Positioned initially as a low-calorie "indulgent" offering for women, it contained a hazelnut cream filling. Initial sales proved very strong, and Nestlé credited the launch with delivering its first increase in local market share for several years. However, that popularity tailed off dramatically in subsequent years and the variant was eventually dropped.
However the most dramatic change has been the leap into different flavours since 2003. This process had originated in Japan, where pineapple and lemon cheesecake versions were already available. In 2004, KitKat was the first confectionery product in the UK to jump on the Atkins diet bandwagon, launching a KitKat Low Carb variant, as well as a rather more exotic White Lemon & Yogurt version. Other exotic variations followed including Christmas Pudding in the UK, Green Tea in Japan, Blood Orange and White Winter in Germany and Chunky Peanut Butter in Canada. KitKat Editions was a more upmarket luxury variant, with special fillings (for example, Seville Orange or Mango & Passionfruit). In 2005, Nestlé began testing KitKat Cappuccino, a coffee and chocolate version.
However in the UK at least, this proliferation of new flavours had a dramatic effect on sales, which slumped alarmingly between 2003 and 2006 falling by as much as 20% to a low of around £65 according to figures from Nielsen. Even Nestlé CEO Peter Brabeck admitted at the time that the company had pushed the brand extension process too far, in what he called a form of product "hyperventilation". The company cut back on the number of different flavour variations of KitKat in the UK and other countries in 2006, although Chunky Peanut Butter and Dark Chocolate versions were introduced in 2007.
Flavoured variants remain enormously popular in Japan, however. Around 20 different and wildly imaginative variants are available including top seller soy sauce, and sweet potato, melon & baked corn and wasabi & white chocolate. In 2009 Nestlé even launched a KitKat drink that combines vegetable and fruit juices with chocolate cream. The product, a joint venture with local drinks company Itoen, is named KitKat Jujitsu yasai or 'vegetables galore'. Many of the Japanese KitKat flavours are only marketed in regional areas of Japan, a strategy which adds considerably to their perceived value as limited editions. In 2010, the group launched a new sub-brand in Japan known as KitKat Otona no amasa (or Adult Sweetness), offering slightly more sophisticated and less sweet varieties. Perhaps the most unusual Japanese variant arrived in 2014 in the form of KitKat Bake, a specially formulated bar that can either be eaten normally or baked in the oven to create a crispy cookie. Perhaps the most bizarre flavour combination to-date was Melon & Mascarpone Cheese, introduced in Japan in 2016.
For 2015, Nielsen (in The Grocer) estimated combined UK sales of KitKat (across the chocolate and biscuits sectors) at £180m, up slightly on the year before. Variants include KitKat Dark (dark chocolate), launched in the UK in 2010, followed by KitKat Mint and bagged snack KitKat Pop Chocs, introduced in 2011. In 2012, the group introduced limited editions of four Chunky variants - peanut butter, dark, orange and white chocolate - and asked the public to vote on which one to keep as a permanent flavour. The peanut butter version sold out almost instantaneously, and was the clear favourite. It launched in April 2012. In a bid to rekindle that level of public interest, a second competition launched in January 2013 for a new additional flavour out of a shortlist of mint, coconut, hazelnut and choc fudge.
The bar's long-running advertising slogan "Have a break - have a KitKat" was first coined in 1957 by J Walter Thompson, and was still being used in 2002. However at the end of that year, Nestlé was unable to prove that the phrase constituted a trademark. Mars won a court case which would allow it to launch a rival product in the UK under the name Have A Break (although that launch never subsequently materialised). In 2004, Nestlé announced that it was retiring the Have A Break slogan in favour of "Make the most of your break". At the same time, Cadbury launched a direct assault on KitKat with the launch of its own Dairy Milk Wafer variant. Following its decision to drop the various extensions to the KitKat range in 2006, Nestlé also resurrected the Have a Break slogan. It has added to that since 2009, expanding the "break" concept under the tagline "Working like a machine? Have a break. Have a KitKat".
Nestle has also attempted to register the four-finger shape of KitKat as a trademark, despite opposition from Cadbury. Its application to register for a UK trademark was declined in 2013. Nestle in return blocked Cadbury's application to trademark the colour purple for its Dairy Milk bar. The battle over KitKat has rumbled on for several years as a result of appeals, until the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that the shape does not warrant status as a trademark under European law.
The product we now know as KitKat was launched by British confectioner Rowntree & Co in 1935, advertised as "the best companion to a cup of tea". It was named after a celebrated 18th century political club in London, which took its name from the fact that its premises were located above a pastry shop owned by one Christopher "Kit" Catling, whose pies were served for dinner at each meeting of the club. The "Kit Cat" name was resurrected in the 1920s for a London night club and restaurant, which lasted throughout that decade and into the 1930s, when the confectionery bar was launched by Rowntree.
In fact, Rowntree first used the "Kit Cat" brandname for a boxed chocolate selection introduced in the 1920s, which featured on its lid a portrait of Catling outside his pastry shop. The boxed selection was later phased out and in 1935, the company launched the familiar four-finger wafer product under the name Rowntree's Chocolate Crisp. It was renamed the KitKat Chocolate Crisp two years later. The design of bar's distinctive red and white wrapper has been largely unchanged since then. The only aberration from this came at the end of the Second World War, when KitKat was temporarily made of plain rather than milk chocolate because of milk shortages. The wrapper became blue to mark this change of formula, before reverting to its original colours and taste in 1947.
KitKat was established as Rowntree's best-selling product by the late 1930s and remained in that position for the next fifty years. It was the first of the company's brands to be advertised on television in Britain, in 1957. In 1970, Rowntree agreed to license the product to Hershey in the US, where it was also successful, although Hershey reportedly struggled at first to keep the wafer in their KitKats crisp. It was launched in Japan later that decade under license to local confectioner Fujiya.
Meanwhile in the UK, the bar became the UK's best-selling confectionery brand in 1986. A year later, Rowntree was acquired by Nestlé in a hostile takeover, and the company gradually rolled out the KitKat bar into its other markets. As a result, the number of bars produced in KitKat's York factory has doubled since 1980.
In 2009, Nestle moved to make all British supplies of KitKat from Fairtrade chocolate. Nevertheless the brand was still manufactured using palm oil, which has been linked to human rights abuses, deforestation and the loss of wildlife in South-East Asia. Despite also pledging to move to only sustainable supplies of palm oil by 2015, the brand was targeted in 2010 by Greenpeace in a gruesome viral clip which showed a consumer snacking on a KitKat made from severed orang-utan fingers.
Last full revision 21st May 2016
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