The Emperors of Chocolate

Joël Glenn Brenner

Read December 2003

Where do M&M's get their name from? Made by the Mars chocolate company, one `M' is obvious (it's Forrest Mars, the patriarch). The second, surprisingly, is from Bruce Murrie, son of William Murrie, president of Mars's arch-rival: Hershey's. Around such intrigue Brenner weaves her tale of the American chocolate industry.

The Coke-Pepsi rivalry may be the most popular, but the chocolate battle is no less intriguing—or less global. As new countries open their economies to the West, purveyors of mass-market goods rush in to capture territory. The luxuries that Western life takes for granted, even frowns upon (fattening foods, oversweet sodas, mediocre chocolates), become symbols of the luxuries of the invading cultures. (Another similarity to Coke and Pepsi is the careful guarding of secret formulas and production mechanisms, to the point of refusing to patent innovations.) Even though these companies have burgeoned into food giants, selling even pet foods, chocolate and candy remain growth industries worldwide. Brenner's book (published in 2000) claims (p. 32) that M&M's earns more revenue annually than Camel cigarettes and Maxwell House coffee.

Part of the intrigue in this story is the contrast between two very different styles of companies. While both began as small kitchen enterprises, and both have grown into global giants, they differ in a crucial way: Hershey's is a publicly-held company while Mars remains staunchly private. While public holding doesn't mean as much for Hershey's as it might for many others, since a good part of the company is owned by the Hershey Trust, it does put the competitors on an uneven footing. The Mars family, in particular, is obsessively secretive, in a way that is almost admirable in an era of celebrity management, and, sadly, in a way that Brenner never appreciates. She writes of their defense of their secrecy, “The Mars family can't understand why this attitude should elicit so much comment and criticism, and that outsiders should view their insistence on privacy as strange”. Frankly, I can't either. Brenner never justifies her inquisitiveness, and while that is perhaps a journalist's prerogative, it is not an author's, and it does weaken the book when she harps on this point and its consequences.

The book tells a lot about the attitude of the companies towards the public. We shouldn't, of course, be surprised that companies of mass-consumption goods (and their advertisers) take the lowest views of their consumers (after all, they're doing quite well in the process...). Still, when they describe the processes of testing their products, there's something frightening in the confirmation of our fears: as when a manager uses the word “grazing” to describe M&M consumption through the day (p. 46).

Much of the time, Brenner's book is just narrative history. It includes a fairly interesting account of the growth of the candy and chocolate industry (Hershey wanted the two treated separately: chocolate was, after all, “healthful”), especially as an easy entry into society for immigrants (p. 164). She devotes some prose to the development of products for military rations. She describes the consequent ad campaigns, Mars's use of its distribution network to elbow in on Hershey's military supply tradition for Gulf War I (and Hershey's clever cornering of publicity), and some of the research on the health effects of chocolate. There's also a certain irony in that the beans grow best in climates where the product won't survive, so a lot of effort has gone into making chocolate products that can weather heat (“melts in your hand, not in your mouth”, as the famous ad campaign goes).

Most of the time, however, she comes across as almost entirely unskeptical, like a hack working for a cheap business rag. The few times she draws her swords, she seems to have them out for the Mars family (to whom she was given unprecedented access), painting harsh portraits of admittedly vicious people and using these to employ a generous measure of pop psychology when analyzing the brothers who currently head the unit (p. 47). This contrasts with her particularly kind handling of Milton Hershey (who, admittedly, had fairly progressive, utopian instincts, moulding Hershey into a company town of the New Lanark variety)Brenner is clearly drawn toward the generous Hershey and repulsed by the bottom-line-driven Mars's, but this sometimes clouds her judgment or at least her reportage.

This book has simpler flaws, too. The writing is mediocre, and editing very shabby: Brenner repeats herself numerous times, and apparently nobody noticed it. Still, there's enough story here to interest anyone who cares about the rise and sustenance of these businesses, and Brenner's research makes up for the writing.

Incidentally, the book nicely lays out the sometimes confusing relationship between the different Hershey's concerns: the company, the Trust, the School, etc. In recent years, the Trust has wanted to diversify its holdings by selling its controlling vote in the company, but a group of School alumni have actively blocked this through lawsuits, arguing that it hurts the school's wards (all orphans, in one of America's more remarkable philanthropies). The book predates these actions, but it does clearly identify the dramatis personae, and shows that such tensions are not new in Hershey history since the death of Milton Hershey.

Thanks to Lee Millward for pointing me to this informative book!