Add its name to the long list of candies that sound like made-up words, which it is, but here’s where history gets cool: “Kit Kat” did not always refer to chocolate.
As early as the mid-1700s, a “Kit Kat” referred to savory pies made with lamb served at the Kit-Cat club in London. (Kitt was a nickname at the time for the name Christopher; so, when Christopher Katt began making pies for the men looking to discuss literature, the pies—and the clubs themselves—became known as Kit Kats.)
It seems like a far jump from mutton to chocolate—and it is. But to make the connection, I did a little digging into the chocolate-coated archives of Hershey’s and Nestlé. Hello, game changer.
In the beginning of the 20th century, candy makers marketed candy as “good food,” putting a chocolate bar on par with a full lunch. Wrappers boasted the whole ingredients in each bar, like milk, nougat and peanuts. And for workers who didn’t want to take the time (and lose money) to sit down for a full lunch, a candy bar was the answer.
Take a look at the “real food” quality marketing used in the KitKat slogans, circa 1930s, claiming KitKats were the “biggest little meal in Britain!” The technique of using marketing to convey “good food” has come full circle—think about the current Snickers campaign, “You’re not you when you’re hungry.”
But Rowntree’s (the original company to produce the KitKat) was about to lose one of their good-for-you ingredients, whole milk, due to food shortages brought on by World War II. In response, Rowntree’s had to cut back on its milk consumption, and so, the KitKat Dark was born, folded into a blue wrapper (instead of the traditional red one).
These bars were even getting sent to the front lines. Quick, cheap energy proved to be just as important for soldiers as it was for laborers.
In 1949, the wrapper returned to its original red foil and KitKat Dark was discontinued, so as not to “confuse consumers into thinking the original recipe had been permanently altered.”
The next big change for KitKat occurred in 1957 when Rowntree’s created the “Have a break…Have a KitKat” slogan under Donald Giles, a real-life contemporary of Mad Men’s Don Draper. But, it would take them until 2004, after unsuccessfully attempting to trademark “Have a Break,” to change their slogan. Now, you can “make the most of your break” with a KitKat.
Hershey’s vs. Nestlé
If you’ve ever traveled to Europe, you’ll notice our American KitKat looks very different than its European cousin. I remember walking into a grocery store in Europe and seeing the shiny foil wrappers of Nestlé’s KitKats instead of Hershey’s orange bars and leaving extremely confused.
To explain, I have to go back to 1969. KitKats weren’t selling in the States. Rowntree’s (and by extension, KitKat) was unknown to Americans and to the infamous American sweet tooth. With Rowntree’s expanding worldwide, this posed a problem. How could it break into the US market?
The answer: partnering with a company that Americans already loved. Rowntree “sold the U.S. rights to manufacture and distribute KitKat and Rolo to Hershey in perpetuity.”
In non-business speak, it meant that Hershey’s could ‘borrow’ but never own the KitKat name. Hershey’s paid Rowntree’s to use the KitKat name on the US-made candy bars. The result? Rowntree’s got more exposure for its candy bar and Hershey’s added a new product to its mix.
It would be like if I let my neighbor use my chocolate chip cookie recipe for one year. They would pay me to have access to it (as Hershey’s did with Nestle) or every time they sold a pack of cookies at the farmers’ market, I would get a cut. At the end of the year, I’d take my recipe back.
But Rowntree’s deal with Hershey’s was ‘in perpetuity.’ So, when Nestlé acquired Rowntree’s in 1988, it honored the original agreement, but with one stipulation: Nestlé would regain the rights to the KitKat if Hershey’s ever attempted to sell itself to another business.
In essence, Nestlé would steal back the recipe if Hershey’s ever joined a bigger company. It was (and has continued to be) an effective way to stop Hershey’s from going into business talks with a competitor. If Hershey’s lost KitKat, it would lose one of its biggest candy icons, ultimately lowering the company’s worth.
If you ever get a chance, take a bite of both candy bars: they taste different. (Or maybe it’s my nostalgia. The Hershey’s KitKat just tastes better.)
Now, I pose to you the toughest candy question: How do you KitKat? You can now nom on them in bite-sized form, the snack size (popular in Halloween pumpkins and college fridges), full size, or Big Kat (which is the equivalent of one normal size KitKat rolled into one long bar). And, that’s only in America. If you bop over to England, you’ll find KitKat Chunky with Mint or Coconut fillings.
Hey, Hershey’s, can we get some of that?