Yes, jobs will be lost. Yes, it’s an historic firm. But that’s not why Kraft’s hostile bid for Cadbury captures the public imagination
Stories about corporate takeovers are not usually riveting, but one is attracting a huge amount of attention. For many people in Britain, people who normally would rather munch on a bag of Revels than read the City pages, the hostile bid for Cadbury by the US conglomerate Kraft Foods puts other economic woes in perspective. Bankers’ bonuses? Annoying, but what can you do? Utilities bills rocketing? C’est la vie. Americans taking over Cadbury? Get your hands off our sweets!
More emotion is invested in sweets than in any other foodstuff – in this country, especially, where we have historically consumed epic quantities. For children, sweets take on huge significance, since in most cases they are the first things we are able to buy, own, give, trade and consume, entirely of our own volition. A child’s visit to the sweetshop is the retail equivalent of a grown-up browsing Rolls-Royces in the showroom, as pennies are counted and a wide range of highly coloured, curiously shaped and temptingly sugared delicacies are appraised and assessed. It is through sweets that we try to tame some of our deepest fears and anxieties as children, consuming gummy spiders or snakes with relish, gnashing on vampire teeth or bubblegum eyeballs, playing at being grownups with cherry lips and chocolate toolkits, becoming an all-powerful tyrant or mad teacher by biting the heads off jelly babies with compunction.
Sweets are not a food, exactly – you do not eat them at mealtimes, or even at the table; you carry them around with you in your pocket, like a little secret which can be produced. They are usually plural: for sharing and giving, for expressing largesse. And when a sweet is in the mouth it may not stay there for long – lollipops go in and out repeatedly, and gobstoppers must be perused to see which colour stage they are at (a hue gloriously transmitted to the eater’s tongue). Sweets double up as toys. And they seem even more valuable in childhood because they are usually rationed or proscribed. How many of us still have an almost Pavlovian reaction on a Saturday afternoon, a craving for sweets that may be indelibly associated with an activity like going to a football match? Indeed, that moment of enjoying a particular sweet or chocolate bar can conjure up the very strongest memories of childhood. For one private moment we can be transported back to the safety and security of that time, reassuring ourselves it was real because the sweet in our mouth tastes exactly the same as it did then. Little wonder that online confectionery retailers report that among their keenest customers are families of British service personnel posted abroad.
Sweets and chocolate manufacturers have for years played on this nostalgic power in advertising – think of Werther’s Originals. Many of our favourite brands have been around for decades – the sweets rack in the newsagent has not changed all that much since the 1930s and, as a result, companies like to create the impression that they are being creative simply by tweaking familiar brands such as KitKat, producing ”limited editions” which alter bar size or flavour instead of launching risky new products which often fail (remember Amazin’ Raisin?). Sweets executives tend to leave the best-known brands alone, because when they do tinker with them there can be uproar – witness the dismay which greeted the replacing of Marathon bar with its US name, Snickers, or when Opal Fruits became Starburst. The recipes are rarely changed – though in there is scepticism among some chocolate fans about Cadbury’s claim that Green & Blacks products, which it has made since 2005, are identical to the original.
In this context there was some concern among chocolate lovers when US firm Hershey showed a strong interest in Cadbury. Hershey chocolate has a unique flavour which not everyone in Britain relishes. But such worries are surely unfounded: Hershey would know better than to mess with Dairy Milk. In fact, insiders know that Hershey is still a strong contender for a future merger with Cadbury, because the ethos and history of the two bear remarkable similarities. The town of Hershey in Pennsylvania was to an extent modelled on the Cadbury brothers’ successful Bournville experiment (and both places provided inspiration for Willy Wonka’s creator, Roald Dahl, being an official Cadbury chocolate taster as a schoolboy). Hershey came from a Mennonite background (a sect similar to the Amish) while the Cadbury ethos was founded on the Quakerism of the founding family, an intensely paternalistic but overall humane management style (its works councils predated trade unions) which tangibly enhanced production. The “unreal village” of Bournville still has its playing fields, swimming pool and purpose-built Arts and Crafts houses (but no pub). The cradle-to-grave model was pursued by chocolate firms across Europe, with “Papa” Suchard introducing workplace insurance, free holidays and a kindergarten at his Swiss factory from the 1870s and Jean Tobler of Toblerone building houses for workers and also offering holidays.
Kraft Foods, a rather faceless conglomerate, has no such ethos or history, and UK sweets fans will be hoping that Cadbury’s shareholders do the decent thing and preserve its independent spirit – and by doing so, its Curly Wurlys.
Tim Richardson is the author of Sweets: A History of Temptation