Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

KitKat is big in Japan. Each bar has six little fingers rather than four, as you’d find in other countries.

Imagine, if you will, some of Nestlé’s variants in that country: melon, baked potato, saké, plum ... I could go on.

In the land of the rising sun, the chocolate-covered wafer bar is so inextricably linked to the nation’s gifting and snacking culture that there are 300-plus bespoke flavours, some unique to certain regions.

The story goes that, 15 years ago, Nestlé started noticing a spike in sales in January when throngs of shoppers would, as tradition dictated, buy KitKat bars as good-luck gifts for students sitting “juken”, the standardised university entrance exam.

KitKat, it turns out, sounds similar to the phrase “kitto katsu”, a Japanese exam-season mantra that means “you will surely win”.

Nestlé’s marketing smarts kicked in and in 2009 the group partnered with Japan Post, which was newly privatised, to launch postable KitKats.

The postcard-like product, sold only at post office branches, could be mailed to students as an edible good-luck token.

The KitKat mail campaign gave Nestlé a 20,000-strong distribution channel (free from competition, unlike supermarkets) and went on to win the Cannes Media Grand Prix.

The post office remains a strong retail channel for KitKat in Japan. Unorthodox flavours are not uncommon in other products in that country.

There’s Azuki Bean Pepsi, Winter Crab Doritos and Green Tea Oreos — adapting to local market nuances is the lifeblood of diversification for multinational consumer goods groups.

For the Swiss brand though, its calculated gust of investment in developing the KitKat brand, which includes the rollout of artisan boutiques like KitKat Chocolatory, has made it Japan’s best-selling chocolate bar.

Late last year, the world’s largest food company launched the 80-year-old legacy brand in China, hoping to build similar success over time.

Through its subsidiary Hsu Fu Chi — one of the largest family-owned confectioners in China — KitKat made its debut in Walmart stores across the country. The chocolate bar has already gained traction with Chinese customers abroad.

Nestlé Australia, for the Chinese New Year sold 24-karat gold KitKat bars at A$88 a pop. Covered with a thin layer of gold leaf, the chocolate bars featured Phoenix Oolong tea leaves from China’s Guangdong province, with elements of litchi and rose petals topped with rose jelly.

Only 88 of the handcrafted bars were produced (eight is, of course, symbolic of great good fortune and is considered to be one of the luckiest numbers in Chinese culture).

Nestlé’s goal of using its most powerful brand to build a sense of reverence with the world’s largest consumer economy is part of a broader push into China, where sales have stalled.

E-commerce will be another offensive. China, where customers have shifted to more premium offerings, is its second-biggest market and Nestlé, in a bid to grapple with slower growth, will carry out an online experiment of sorts.

Using Alibaba’s leading B2C online shopping site, the Tmall.com portal, it will sell 150 products (67 of which have never been offered in China, including Nido milk powder from the Netherlands, Damak chocolate from Turkey and Nescafé Gold from France).

Wan Ling Martello, the executive vice-president overseeing Asian, Oceanian and African markets says Chinese consumers are a step ahead of those in other markets in the “digital way” they consume. They are also quicker to adopt new consumption technologies than their global peers.

A case in point: Nestlé’s e-commerce business in China is more profitable than sales through brick-and-mortar outlets.

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