In 1896, James Henry Whittaker gave Kiwis the first taste of the chocolate that would see his name inextricably linked to the treat from that moment on. First sold directly to consumers from his horse and van, the chocolate became so popular that by 1913 Whittaker decided to establish an official business bearing his name in Wellington. From those early days, the business was a family operation, with Whittaker’s sons, Ronald and James, integrally involved in the day-to-day running of the manufacturing.
If we fast-forward three generations and over 100 years to the present day, things don’t look all that different, with the Whittaker family still active at the core of the business—a fact typified by the tongue-in-cheek statement ‘blood is thicker than water, and chocolate is thicker than that’, which currently features under the history section of the company’s website.
To this day, the company often trumpets the fact that “it’s the only major chocolate company in New Zealand that imports its cocoa beans, roasts and refines them and controls the whole manufacturing process through to the end product”. But the cocoa beans aren’t the only ingredient to have contributed to the company’s success.
In 2009, when Cadbury substituted cocoa butter for palm oil in its dairy milk chocolate and dropped the size by 50 grams, the public responded with outrage. According to Ruth Laugesen’s article in the Listener, the fiasco saw Whittaker’s market share in the big block market rise from 22 to 32 percent within a year. In addition, Whittaker’s retail sales in supermarkets and petrol stations shot up from $17 million to $27.6 million between 2009 and 2010. And while there has been a correlation between Whittaker’s recent success and Cadbury’s palm oil fiasco, Laugensen points out that an oversimplification of the narrative doesn’t do justice to the groundwork the team at Whittaker’s has been doing behind the scenes.
“The brothers had patiently transformed the company with years of investment in equipment, careful attention to quality of ingredients, new product development and expert marketing. When the palm oil crisis hit, Whittaker’s was ready. It had a skilled advertising team and a product that could withstand all the attention it was suddenly getting.” And leading this skilled team was the head of marketing Philip Poole, an Englishman who has served at the company for the last 12 years. By the time he joined Whittaker’s, Poole was already an industry veteran, having previously held marketing roles for Unilever in South Africa, the UK, Thailand and New Zealand. And in his time with the company, Whittaker’s share of the moulded chocolate market has grown from 10 to 35 percent and its share of the enrobed chocolate market share has doubled from 11 to 22 percent.