Being interested in both food and marketing, I’ve recently been fascinated by the emerging story that that Mast Brothers Chocolate out of Brooklyn is not truly the bean-to-bar manufacturer they’ve claimed to be.
Helmed by a photogenic pair of bearded brothers, Mast Brothers serves up an inspiring origin story of an apartment-based start-up making it big. The company sheaths its bars – which retail in the $10 range – in gorgeous, high-end paper designed by an in-house creative director. Articles and interviews with the brothers are peppered with words like “authenticity” and “artisanal” and “transparency” – and almost every media mention references the beards and/or the packaging. The Mast empire has expanded to include several factories and storefronts, a best-selling cookbook, and a presence in dozens of high-end retail shops and restaurants.
The problem? There’s speculation that the bean-to-bar concept on which the brothers built their branding strategy; that originally the brothers used re-melted commercial chocolate. The equipment they claimed to have used was called into question. Suspicion over the source further escalated when countries of origin and ingredient lists disappeared from the bars’ packaging – a strange omission for a company that preaches transparency.
Beyond all that, the chocolate that they are making now is considered by experts to be, well, not very good.
What began as a whisper on the fringe of the chocolate/foodie communities has become a full-on mainstream roar. The New York Times even covered the controversy in their Sunday edition. The Masts have gone on the defensive, posting a rebuttal and Q&A on the press page of their website.
While on the outset this may seem similar to the Shinola issue, which Sean previously posted about, in my mind it’s pretty different. In Shinola’s case, while the branding came under attack – is it really “Made in Detroit” if pieces used in the assembly are manufactured abroad? – the product/quality of the product itself never came into question. Additionally, customers rallied around the brand.
In the case of Mast, we have a brilliantly branding strategy that doesn’t align with its product, and a customer base that feels deceived and even foolish.
Like Shinola, the Masts continue to defend their brand publicly. It will be interesting to watch how it all shakes out. In the meantime, I think this provides some food for thought (pun intended) to anyone in the process of branding or rebranding a product or service. A strong branding strategy and great marketing can take you pretty far – but it can crumble quickly when it’s not built on the foundation of a strong product.