Episode #21

James Le Compte from To’ak Chocolate

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In this episode of Beyond the Inbox, Sam interviews James Le Compte, CEO of To’ak Chocolate, a luxury chocolate brand that focuses on sustainability and social impact. James begins by discussing the company's mission to create the world's most valuable chocolate, not in terms of price but in terms of the value it delivers to farmers, the environment, and consumers. He also talks about the ideal buyer for their products, which tends to be connoisseurs interested in learning about the origins and craft behind the brand.

Next, Sam and James discuss the company's marketing strategy and how it has evolved over time. James notes that they have had to take a non-traditional approach to luxury branding, as they do not have the resources for flagship retail stores or experiences. Instead, they have leveraged the digital channel, focusing on email, PR, and content marketing. James also talks about their post-purchase survey, which has been valuable for collecting data on customer feedback.

The conversation then moves on to discussing To’ak Chocolate's sustainability efforts. James explains that the company is a benefit corporation with stated social and environmental impacts. They have developed partnerships with other organizations to scale their impact, such as their project with Third Millennium Alliance to support regenerative agriculture in Ecuador.

Finally, James shares some insights into the future of To’ak Chocolate's marketing strategy. They plan to focus on tapping into their existing customer base and launching a loyalty program that offers rewards from other Ecuadorian brands. James emphasizes the importance of partnerships in scaling their impact and achieving their sustainability goals.

Overall, this episode offers valuable insights into how a luxury brand can balance growth with sustainability and social impact, To’ak Chocolate's non-traditional approach to marketing and focus on partnerships serves as a model for other companies looking to make a positive impact while still achieving success.

Show Notes

  • (00:00) Introduction
  • (01:15) James Le Compte's background and how he got involved with To’ak Chocolate
  • (03:45) The mission of To’ak Chocolate and the value it delivers
  • (06:49) Ideal buyer and target audience
  • (08:20) Ideal consumers and their interests
  • (09:54) Marketing strategy evolution and successful channels
  • (12:26) Welcome flow for first-time buyers and the ideal interaction
  • (13:42) Bringing in customers at the low price point and upselling
  • (15:36) Subscription model and plans to incentivize subscriptions
  • (16:49) Successful channels, including post-purchase survey and PR
  • (19:02) Correlation between high-quality backlinks and the quality of customers
  • (21:42) Educational content on the website and its purpose
  • (23:30) Focusing on existing customers in 2023 and launching a loyalty program
  • (25:54) Balancing growth and sustainability and the importance of partnerships
  • (28:48) Where to learn more about To’ak Chocolate and its products

Read the transcript:

Sam (00:00): James, welcome to Beyond the Inbox. Thank you so much for taking the time to join us.

James (00:04): It's a pleasure. Thanks for having me. Sam,

Sam (00:07): Can you tell us about your background and how you became involved with To’ak Chocolate?

James (00:12): Yeah, uh, I'd love to. So my background is really in, uh, social entrepreneurship and, um, social enterprise. And I've always had a strong interest in chocolate from a young age, like, uh, a lot of us do, I guess, as, uh, as kids. My, um, mum used to say that I had chocolate antennas because wherever the chocolate was hidden in the house, um, I made it my mission to, uh, define the new secret hiding spot. Um, but yeah, I've, I've always had a, a strong interest in, in fine food, in having some sort of impact, uh, in the work that I do, particularly around, um, you know, social or environmental impact. And having spent a number of years in both the private sector and the not-for-profit sector, I, um, I was excited to, to get involved in, in, um, you know, a new way of looking at chocolate. Uh, it's an industry that really, um, is overdue for a bit of a shakeup in terms of the way that it's designed and, and, and the impacts it has both negative and, and positive. And so the, uh, opportunity to, to be involved in a startup, uh, a luxury startup brand was, um, just, uh, a, a fantastic opportunity to connect my skills and, and passion.

Sam (01:42): So chocolate has a distinctive brand story that sets it apart from other chocolate makers. How do you go about crafting and engaging brand narrative that resonates with consumers?

James (01:55): Yeah, I think, uh, I think probably the starting point for us is authenticity. So we, we really go to great pains, I think to, um, you know, to, to share a story that, that is genuine, that is, um, both something that we are passionate about, but, but that's also, um, you know, bigger than us or has a, a bigger narrative. And so, you know, that, um, I think that's where we're able to, to draw some connections to, um, universal values that, uh, you know, that people are drawn to. And so, um, you know, that, that in a practical sense could be, for example, the work we do with the, the farmers. So we've been working with the same 13, uh, cacao farmers in, in coastal Ecuador for the past 10 years. And we have a really close relationship with them. Uh, they enjoy tasting the chocolate that comes from their cacao.

(02:55): Um, it's not a foreign sort of, uh, product to them. It's, it's something that, you know, we take, um, great excitement in sharing with them each time a new addition comes out and doing a tasting together as peers. And we took a decision from the beginning when we, when we really learned how special and unique the cacao was that we're working with, um, to, um, go beyond fair trade. And, and in our case, we pay between three to eight times the fair trade price. Um, but then, you know, we, we also have, um, uh, a strong commitment to, uh, you know, doing business in a responsible way and in a way that, uh, not only if you like, um, keeps the status quo through sustainability, but actually gives back and regenerates the, the environment. And so we, um, we've done things such as, you know, genetic testing of the cacao that we use and, and set up a genetic bank. And, and now, um, finally that, that, uh, project has, um, had some early success. We were able to offer really high quality genetic cacao, um, material to farmers as, as a way to, you know, work on, uh, regenerative agriculture and, um, increasing their income.

Sam (04:15): I want to touch more on the sustainability aspect a little later on, but one thing I want to ask you is, when I was researching for this episode, there was a hook that got me and it was me, the world's most expensive chocolate, and that just pulled me right in, and I was so curious about that world. Can you talk more about that, Monica? Is that something the media has given you, or is that something that you have personally cultivated in your marketing?

James (04:43): Yeah, it's a great question. I think from a marketing angle, uh, as a brand or, and as individuals behind the brand, we, we certainly haven't at any point given ourselves that label. Um, I think we've made a point of that. Um, we also would never say that, you know, we make the world's best chocolate. If somebody else says that about us, then you know that, that's wonderful to hear, but it's a very personal or, you know, a subjective opinion. And so we, we did, interestingly, we did a bit of workshopping on that topic, uh, within the team. And because it, it, it did sit a bit, um, awkwardly with us this idea of the world's most expensive chocolate. We, none of us come from the world of luxury. None of us would be the target customer of the brand. Um, but luxury has this really interesting aspect to it, which A, allows you to hone a particular craft to give value to something that has heritage, that has culture and history embedded within it.

(05:54): And it's really, I guess it's at the opposite end of mass production and consumerism. And those concepts really spoke to us. And so what we came to, if you like, at the end of that workshopping exercise was that we make the world's most valuable chocolate, uh, valuable because it delivers value, you know, to the farmers we work with. It delivers value to the environment, it delivers value to the consumers. And, you know, so for us, it's not about being the world's most expensive. Um, I I, I, I definitely can't deny that that from a marketing perspective can be leveraged and, and, and, you know, we're happy to sort of ride that, um, I guess wave. But yeah, for us it's, it's much more, I guess, the interest in the value that we're able to create.

Sam (06:49): I want to ask you more about your ideal buyer, because when I go on the website, I see the chocolate on the high end, I see it on the low end, I see the corporate gifting. Who are you appealing to in your marketing?

James (07:02): Hmm. So when we started Turac, we, we did look at the fine wine industry, the spirits industry, fine food, and we looked at how a, uh, a raw material, if you like, um, could be converted into something very valuable through the combination of skill artisanship, storytelling and branding essentially. And you know that the audience that, that, that talks to tends to be the, the connoisseurs, the, um, people who really want to learn the detail behind the brand. They want to, um, really understand the nuances about, uh, you know, the origin of the product about the, the particular ingredients and, and, and the, the craft that goes, um, behind the production of it. And so that tends to be our ideal consumer, somebody who's quite discerning, uh, curious, inquisitive, um, particularly people who, you know, have an existing interest, uh, passion hobby, uh, in one of those areas.

(08:20): Uh, you know, whether it's fine wine or a particular spirits category, we have people that really, um, geek out on mezcal and they want something to extend their mezcal experience with, and they totally understand the whole world of craft or fine chocolate because of the, um, you know, the emphasis we put on the sourcing of the raw materials, the way that we handle them, um, and, and the way that we communicate it. And so, you know, being able to pair your favorite mezcal or doing a, you know, an intimate evening with friends around, uh, some single malt whiskeys and pairing it with AK chocolate, you know, that, that tends to be our, um, ideal target customer. Um, as well as, uh, you know, we appeal to a lot of gifting, um, opportunities and, and that ranges from corporate gifting where we do, uh, co-branding, uh, and some personalized gifts because we do in-house, um, everything really to do with the whole product, uh, all of the product, the harvesting of the chocolate, the, the production, sorry, the harvesting of the cacao, the production of the chocolate, uh, as well as the design and, um, crafting of the packaging.

(09:32): And so, um, gifting tends to be a big, uh, big element of the business.

Sam (09:38): Yeah, I was on the page, and I think you've done an outstanding job. I really love seeing the other brands you've worked with in the past. I think that adds to some social proof as well. One thing I wanted to ask you was, how has your marketing strategy evolved over time and what has been most successful?

James (09:54): Yeah, the, it's a, it's a really good question because the, you know, we, we really are still in this, uh, what feels like a startup mode, and weve had to take, um, quite a non-traditional approach to a luxury brand. Um, on the one hand, we've tried to stay as authentic and true to the luxury brand playbook. Um, but on the other hand, we haven't had the resources to set up a flagship retail store or to have, you know, a, um, I don't know, a wine chateau or a chocolate, you know, um, experience that you come and visit. And so we did really leverage the digital channel, um, and continue to do so. But that's evolved significantly, uh, since when we started. I think when we, when we first started, we, we had a real, uh, we were really driven by creating an immersive digital experience online, but that wasn't necessarily created with the user experience in mind.

(10:58): Um, and so we found that while it might look beautiful as perhaps like a, um, you know, an artistic piece, it wasn't necessarily, uh, optimized for a shopping experience. And so that was perhaps our first lesson. Um, and then, you know, really we, we started to get some success with digital marketing, uh, when we started with our email, uh, when we really turned our attention to the potential for email, I should say, because we'd collected, uh, you know, subscription email addresses, uh, over the years, and we'd really just seen it as another communication channel. And so when we had bits and pieces of news to, uh, share with our, um, membership or, or database, we would put out ad hoc pieces of, um, of communication. But it wasn't until we really properly, I guess the opportunity to, you know, for email to be a, um, a driver of revenue. And so that was a key turning point. And then since then we've, you know, we've, um, had another evolution with the, with the website design, um, and we've really tried to add a lot of, um, interesting bits and pieces in there, you know, subscription, upsells, um, uh, you know, a a range of different, um, strategies to, to make it a seamless experience.

Sam (12:26): So when someone lands on the website for the first time and they are joining your email list, I assume they're going through a welcome flow of sorts.

James (12:36): Yeah, that's right. And that, that was an interesting exercise for us because what we tried to do was we tried to f look at, rather than perhaps the traditional, uh, welcome series where people get different offers and it's quite a sort of commercial, um, play. What we did was we, we thought about how we could make this more conversational and more of a, a, you know, the sort of a personal insight from the co-founders, from the farmers and really about creating a, an emotional connection with the brand before we did any sort of, you know, selling if you like.

Sam (13:19): And what do you want a first time buyer to do in terms of, is it better to bring them in at a low price point first and then upsell them to a more expensive item? I see on the website you have the chocolate in the box, and I love everything you're doing there, but can you tell me more about how you're doing that?

James (13:42): Yeah, so in terms of, uh, what would be the ideal interaction, uh, we, we do offer quite a, a wide range of products, uh, I think around 40 different sk so I'd say a wide range for a small, um, for a smallish team. And that, what that does is it does give the opportunity for customers to, you know, continually try something new. And so, uh, you know, that, that's been an important part of, um, I think our growth because, you know, there is an element of, um, learning of novelty is not perhaps the right word, but that sort of, you know, um, encountering something for the first time. And so we like to kind of recreate that experience with, um, you know, chocolate that's been aged in different casks, for example. So you might have tried our, uh, single malt risky cask gauged chocolate, and now you're interested, you know, the new release that's coming out is a, a gin cascade chocolate and, and that, um, you know, that creates a slight, you know, different angle on, on, on the experience.

(14:54): Um, but you know, we, we, we do tend to get customers that, um, that try a whole range of, of products and, and really we have, if you like, at the top end, we have products that are perfect for special occasions, um, wedding gifts, you know, uh, anniversaries, uh, those types of things. And then we have products that are more for, you know, a dinner party or for, you know, a little self gift, um, a personal treat, that type of thing. Um, yeah. And so it's, um, it, it gives people an opportunity to engage with the brand on different occasions, which we find is, is important.

Sam (15:36): I see. There's the option to subscribe as well to a recurring delivery. Is subscription something you plan to double down on, or is that something you are testing currently?

James (15:47): It's something that we, you know, started, um, promoting at the beginning of this year, and so we're still learning about it. We've been pleasantly surprised, uh, by, by the, the take up. We will be launching a loyalty program shortly, and so we'll try and incentivize subscription through that loyalty program. I think, you know, for, uh, for most brands, subscription is, you know, uh, is, is a, is a goal because it's, you know, this beautiful sort of set and forget, um, type of, um, revenue and, you know, and, and, and chocolate is something that, that people don't really grow tired of, uh, usually. And so, um, yeah, if, if, if you enjoy the product, then it does tend to be, um, a nice, uh, a nice option to get that little surprise in, in the mailbox, you know, once or twice a month.

Sam (16:42): What channels are working well for you right now? I know you mentioned word of mouth, but what else is performing well for you?

James (16:49): Yeah, we do a, um, post-purchase survey, and that's been really interesting to, you know, dig into the, the data on that and has been extremely valuable. And, you know, for any brands out there that aren't doing it, you know, um, it's, it's such an easy thing to implement and, and give so much value. So I highly recommend it. Um, we, we've had a lot of, uh, success through, um, pr and we've been able to do that in a fairly cost effective way because we have, uh, a talented team in-house, uh, that does some of our, uh, that does our, you know, comms, so the content, uh, and, and, uh, photography and video and, and all of the types of assets that, uh, you know, the, the media and other, you know, bloggers or content creators that makes their job easy. So we found that, you know, rather than just putting out a story, uh, and hoping for the best, if you, if you invest a bit upfront in creating content that makes, you know, the content creator's job really easy, then it tends to have a higher success rate, and particularly if that's quality content.

(18:04): So, you know, we put together a media kit, which, um, journalists and other content creators can browse through with a whole bunch of organized pho, high quality photos and content. Um, so that's been a successful strategy for us. Um, and then, you know, we've also had some, some success with, um, more bespoke, um, corporate gifting orders. Um, it tends to be what we offer tends to be, uh, refreshing alternative to the traditional bottle of wine or, you know, that gets gifted. So, um, that, that's worked for us.

Sam (18:44): Regarding pr I'm always curious, when you are landing these high quality backlinks from major media outlets, is there any correlation between getting those kind of links, getting that kind of exposure and having a certain quality of customer?

James (19:02): It's, it's an interesting question because we have in the past tried to predict, I guess, spikes in, in sales and things like that related to upcoming, um, pieces of media coverage that we're aware of. And it's a, we've sort of, you know, we've got it right about 50% of the time. We, we had on one occasion, we were really thrilled about it. We, um, negotiated with, um, a National Geographic cable TV program for them to do a piece on to OAC and the conservation work that we're doing, uh, on the ground in Ecuador, and they flew a, a team out to Ecuador, um, you know, camera cameraman and, um, a host, et cetera. And it was a whole production, I mean, for about six or seven minutes of content, but we were, we were really thrilled about it and thought, you know, this is gonna take the brand to new levels.

(20:00): Um, and it was a bit of a non-event. I mean, it's, it's been fantastic to say that, you know, Nat Geo came and did a mini documentary on, on our conservation work, and, and that really works as a, you know, in terms of creating brand equity and, and, and, and that sort of thing. But compared to, for example, um, you know, we had a, at another point, a, um, a really short clip on, I believe it was cnbc, and, and that just, you know, went crazy. We, you know, um, we had sort of three months worth of orders in, in 24 hours. So it's quite unpredictable, I guess. And, um, if you don't get the immediate return on, I guess the commercial results, often the EO has know this content lives on usually for a while, and so it, it may also have a, you know, a long tail, which, which is, which is great.

Sam (20:56): I guess it's fair to also say that there's so much more than simply acquiring customers from this type of exposure. One example that comes to mind is, I was listening to an interview with author James Clear, and he talked about how he wrote this article and the article was picked up by a major media outlet, and then they invited him on to their show to do a segment, and then he asked if he could come back a year later when his book was live, and then he came back and there was just this knock on effect from one action to something far greater at the end of it. And I'm sure National Geographic and all these other media outlets, it provides so much social proof for the brands. And like you said, there were so many other benefits that come from it as well.

James (21:42): Indeed. Yeah, a hundred percent agree with that.

Sam (21:46): Something else I wanted to ask you, which I really like what you're doing. You have a blog on the website and there are different types of articles that you are writing. There was one I read where you were comparing TOA to Mr. Beast's chocolate, and my question is, are you creating content on the website specifically targeting keywords, or is this more of an educational tool for potential customers?

James (22:11): Yeah, it's, uh, I would say that, you know, if you look at the 80 20 rules, so it's 80% content that we believe is educational and that we are genuinely interested in ourselves, and then 20% of it would be more, uh, informed by, you know, what people are looking for on the internet and being able to provide a, you know, a piece of content that addresses that, uh, that question or series of questions from, you know, from a, um, I think an informed perspective. And so we, you know, with, with the blog, we decided on a few high level categories, um, if you like the, kind of like the, the values that we wanted to espouse from a brand voice, um, perspective. And so, uh, that is how we plan the content around those, uh, around those topics. And yeah, we do some work with, uh, an SEO agency, but a lot of it is content that we, you know, that we believe in, I guess, and, and that we find interesting. Uh, yeah,

Sam (23:21): We've talked about a few different channels in this conversation, email, PR, content and so on. Which are you doubling down on in 2023?

James (23:30): In 2023, we'd really like to focus on tapping into our existing customer base. Um, you know, there's always that, um, I guess expression that it costs x times more to acquire a new customer than it does to, you know, find that sale from your existing customers. And with the changing dynamics with, um, you know, digital advertising and, uh, you know, there's just a lot more competition. There's, uh, it's tougher to, to do targeting and, and, and the returns are not as great as they used to be. Um, you know, we are really focusing now on, um, our email marketing because that's a captive audience and they're familiar with the brand and we get really good open rates and, and, and responses. Um, and then the new piece, which I briefly touched on was the loyalty program that we're planning to launch, um, very shortly. And the, the way that we designed the loyalty program was, I guess with a lot of things at to, to oac, we didn't want to just sort of reinvent the wheel.

(24:41): We wanted to do something, uh, a little bit different. And so what we've done is we've identified a number of other Ecuadorian brands. We, we've identified really strongly with our, um, origins as a, as a Ecuadorian luxury brand, and we looked for other Ecuadorian brands that, um, provide, you know, or that, that produce really high quality artisanal products. And we've negotiated to offer those products from their collection as part of our, um, rewards that that loyal customers can redeem. So it's, again, it's about discovering, um, new, new brands, new products, new experiences, and not just within the to oac, um, you know, uh, world, but within that broader ecosystem of values that, that we identify with.

Sam (25:35): I wanna touch on the sustainability aspect, because I know time is running quickly. I wanted to ask you, as the brand grows and you expand your reach, how do you maintain that balance between growing and remaining sustainable?

James (25:54): It's a, it's a really good question. Um, you know, we, we set the business up as a benefit corporation, and so, um, it's, it, it's still in a lot of senses, uh, similar to, uh, uh, a C-corp, um, or an S-corp, but it, it has embedded in the constitution, um, stated social and environmental impacts. And we, you know, therefore are guided by that as a business, but we also recognize that it's difficult for us to sometimes do both of those things at the same time, grow and, um, you know, keep our eye on the sustainability element to the extent we'd like to. And so partnerships are really important to us. Um, you know, at the end of the day we're experts in farming, harvesting, cacao, and producing chocolate experiences. Um, we know a lot about conservation, uh, and we know a lot about, um, creating social impact, uh, in a, in a small holder pharma context, but there are other partnerships that we have, um, where, you know, those teams know a great deal more and where we can be an enabler of their work, then I think that allows us to scale and scale our impact at the same time.

(27:24): So it, you know, it does come down to those partnerships. And for example, in the conservation area, we work with Third Millennium Alliance and, um, we've developed together a regenerative agriculture project where farmers around a nature reserve who used to, um, you know, do illegal logging or poaching, have been, um, supported to regenerate their farms, which, you know, which have been monoculture or cleared. Um, they've been supported with, um, AK and TMA to plant high quality cacao amongst in, you know, within a biodiverse, um, uh, farming model, uh, to, to plant not only the high quality cacao, but food crops and other native plants. And that brings back the biodiversity, which, you know, the, the plants, the birds, um, the insects, um, et cetera, they all need that biodiversity. Um, but the farmers are able to also generate a great income from the cacao and other fruit, uh, crops. And so, yeah, that, that's only been possible through partnerships.

Sam (28:37): James, this has been a fascinating conversation. I'm really glad that you are able to pursue a childhood passion and give back at the same time. Where can our listeners go to learn more about AK Chocolate?

James (28:48): Yeah, thank you. Uh, they can go to To'ak chocolate t o a k chocolate.com and, um, yeah, we have a, a really exciting range of cask age, chocolate, um, single origin chocolate and, um, some exciting new, uh, products under the, um, under the new category called Alchemy. So, um, I'd encourage everyone to go and check it out.

Sam (29:13): Perfect. Well, we will put all those links in the show notes. And James, I wanna thank you again for taking the time to join us today, and all the best in the future with AK Chocolate.

James (29:22): Thanks, Sam.