At first glance, Chocpix seems to be a new twist on the old novelty chocolate postcard idea, but the simple technology behind it in fact offers a much wider - and more innovative - range of product options.
"We first came across the moulds we now use to create Chocpix while were working with one of our media partners," Geoff Dixon, director of Chocpix, told ConfectioneryNews.com. "At the time, we had no experience of the confectionery market, as our company, Media Ideas, focused on the entertainment industry - we have worked closely with Aardman Animations on the Wallace and Gromit franchise, for example.
"We saw how the simple mould was used to create a 3-D image in a slab of material, and began wondering whether it could be applied to chocolate to create an upmarket novelty product - the kind of item which was very popular among our media clients seeking new ways to promote their output."
It was the detail of the moulds - and the product produced by them - which gave Dixon and his partners the idea. The moulds are made by simply scanning any picture - no matter how detailed - into a computer and then etching the design into a block of plastic. That detail can then be transferred to the product poured into the mould, be it chocolate, resin or anything else.
But there was an added bonus. By using thin slabs of opaque white chocolate, the product also gave a 3-D effect when held up to the light, bringing out all the detail of the original picture.
After joining forces with the mould's inventor and patenting the technique for chocolate products, Chocpix set about garnering interest in the product. Its similarity to the old chocolate postcard product made that the logical place to start, and the firm picked its home town of Barnards Castle (in north east England) - along with top tourist destinations Blackpool and London - as its first subjects.
"We teamed up with County Confectionery in Cornwall to make the first batches of Chocpix to show to prospective customers, and that gave us an added bonus," Dixon explained. "For the 3-D effect to work, we have to use white chocolate, which County happens to source in Belgium, a country with a strong quality image when it comes to chocolate. This has given us an additional selling point."
The success of the product was phenomenal - indeed the basic product, minus packaging and with just a couple of designs, has already won the award for best British product at this year's ISM confectionery exhibition in Germany - and Dixon and his partners have begun looking at developing their idea.
"Although we see Chocpix as much more than just another chocolate postcard, this is certainly an avenue we want to pursue," Dixon said. "We are looking to work with preferred partners such as postcard producers, which would not only give us access to a massive range of picture designs but also allow us to cut costs by using their sales and distribution networks."
But Chocpix' ambitions do not stop there. "This is a versatile technology, which means we are not limited to the rectangular postcard or chocolate bar shape. For example, we can produce chocolate coins with company logos or designs on - a novel means, say, for restaurants or caterers to offer a chocolate with a cup of coffee.
"Our media contacts have thrown up a number of potential TV or movie tie-ins, as well," Dixon continued. "Chocolate companies often sponsor TV programmes - Cadbury, for example, sponsors Coronation Street [the longest running soap opera on British TV with a weekly viewing audience of millions] but it doesn't really do anything to combine its chocolate heritage with the marketing rights to the programme."
While Dixon was quick to point out that Chocpix had no intention of taking on Cadbury, he stressed that TV offered a number of possibilities, especially given increasing levels of merchandising surrounding 'fad' programmes such as Big Brother. The sports world also offered a number of possibilities, such as reproducing football team pictures or logos.
With such a novelty product offering a myriad of design possibilities, it is also logical for Chocopix to target the well-established occasions market within the mainstream confectionery segment as well. Children will now be able to offer their parents chocolate Mothers Day or Fathers Day cards, for example, and Christmas, Easter and Valentine's Day offer a plethora of opportunities, not just for bars but coins, lollies and shaped products, Dixon said.
And while the basic chocolate has to be white to allow the light to pass through it and create the 3-D effect, this does not prevent the use of colours. "We can add a milk chocolate 'frame' around the picture, and can also tint the pictures to give them a particular colour when the light shines through. If we made a product licensed, say, to Marvel Comics for their Hulk character, we could give it a green tint," Dixon suggested, stressing however that Chocpix had not yet reached any such licensing agreement.
Easy to license
Licensing Chocpix is a simple matter. Companies wanting to develop their own ranges work with Chocpix on designing the mould, but they are not obliged to manufacture the product through County Confectionery - although that is also possible. Producers can take the mould and use it in their own processing facilities, or those owned by a third party supplier.
"The mould is simply added to the production line like any other for chocolate, so there is no additional technology needed," Dixon said. "The cost of the licence is covered by a percentage of sales, so the up-front costs are very small. We help companies with their design, but they can use the technology however they want."
Nor is the UK the only market showing an interest - indeed, Dixon suggested that potential clients there were the most cautious of all, perhaps waiting to see how the chocolate sells in other markets before committing.
"We have had more interest from Germany than from anywhere else," Dixon said. "We are about to start producing for one of the major retailers there, and we are hopeful that that will lead to further orders, both in Germany and elsewhere in Europe."
As orders increase, the company has begun looking for means of keeping its own production costs as low as possible, moving from the original hand turning of moulds to large scale production. A shift from metal moulds to plastic is also likely to reduce costs.
But the idea is to keep the finished product costs as low as possible without compromising on quality. "We do not set a recommended retail price for Chocpix products, and although we check all the finished product to ensure our own standards are being maintained, companies are of course free to sell them at whatever price they choose," Dixon said.
"And since the more they sell, the more commission we make, it is in everyone's interest to stimulate as much growth as possible!"