A very psychological chocolate

A familiar sight amid the Christmas supermarket shelves is the box of Black Magic chocolates. It’s a classic product that’s been familiar to British shoppers since the 1930s but less well known is the fact that it was entirely designed by psychologists.

The chocolates were produced by Rowntree’s who were a pioneer in using empirical psychology to design products (rather than a Freudian approached preferred by American marketers like Edward Bernays).

The idea was to design an assortment of chocolates that would be tailored to be the ideal off-the-shelf romantic gift. This is from an article (pdf) on the history of Rowntree’s marketing:

The National Institute of Industrial Psychology interviewed 7,000 people over six months on their conception of the perfect chocolate assortment. In another survey, 3,000 preferences for hard, soft, and nut centres exactly determined the proportions of chocolate types in the assortment.

Retailers were consulted and their recommendations on margins and price maintenance were followed carefully. Shopkeepers, moreover, supplied information on buying behavior, and it was discovered that most assortments were purchased by men for women and that they were influenced entirely by value rather than fancy boxes. The now familiar, simple black-and-white box was distinctive and chosen from fifty similar designs.

The marketing was then focussed not on the qualities of the product, but on its potential use in developing relationships.

While this is common practice now, it was quite revolutionary at the time, although you can see from the archive of Black Magic adverts that the approach seems painfully clunky from a modern perspective.

The use of psychologists was part of Rowntree’s pioneering use of psychology throughout its whole business, both including product design and human resources and was also one of the most important moments in the launch of professional psychology in the UK – something covered by a 2001 article (pdf) from The Psychologist.

So while Black Magic chocolates now seem just like a common supermarket item, they’re actually an important part of psychology history.

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