It’s not every day that you see a chandelier made out of KitKats, but you will find one in the first-ever KitKat store. Dubbed the KitKat Chocolatory and tucked inside the Seibu department store in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district, the shop stocks exclusive KitKat flavors–sublime bitter, sakura green tea, and chili to begin with–created in partnership with celebrity chef Yasumasa Takagi of Le Patissier Takagi.
The store was mobbed by KitKat connoisseurs at its grand opening on January 17 and sold out of product in one hour and 40 minutes. Sharla, a Canadian student who writes a blog about life in Japan and posts videos on YouTube, was there and documented her experience. She was able to sample some of the flavors–the spicy chili was her favorite–and buy a few treats to take home before everything was gone.
“We’re obviously delighted with the initial response,” says KitKat global brand manager Stewart Dryburgh, who says the store is still struggling to keep up with demand, which, of course, is not a bad problem to have. Ultimately, the store wasn’t launched to make a substantial impact on sales but rather as a promotional tool. Dryburgh describes the KitKat Chocolatory as “a beacon and almost a lightning rod to draw people in to engage with the brand.”
Japan is a major market for KitKat. In fact, it’s one of the top three markets worldwide for the crispy wafer bar, which has been sold in the country since 1973. KitKat’s biggest competitor in Japan is Pocky, known for its skinny chocolate-dipped biscuit sticks. “KitKat was number one last year, and Pocky has just become number one back in front of us again,” Dryburgh reports. “We’ll be competing to go back ahead of them. It’s a very interesting race that’s going on.”
Pocky is a homegrown brand, while KitKat, owned by Nestlé (though Hershey has a license to produce and sell KitKat in the United States), is not. Still, the Japanese have embraced KitKat in part because KitKat happens to sound similar to the Japanese phrase “kitto katto,” which can be translated to “surely, you will succeed,” Dryburgh explains.
KitKat latched onto the term about 12 years ago and launched a marketing campaign behind it, Dryburgh says, linking the brand and the uplifting phrase to the college-entrance exam time known as “juken.” It’s a stressful period for high school students who have to perform well on the famously rigorous exam to get into the best schools.
The campaign has resonated, and in the last decade, it has actually become a tradition to give students the gift of KitKat during juken. “This is one of the things that’s helped root the brand into the Japanese psyche and make it part of Japanese life and, to a certain degree, Japanese culture,” Dryburgh stresses.
KitKat is also in demand in Japan because the brand has tapped into the love the Japanese have for innovation and interesting new things, according to Dryburgh. While most of the KitKats sold in Japan–80%–are standard milk chocolate, you can find other flavors like wasabi, edamame soybean, purple sweet potato and strawberry cheesecake that aren’t sold in other countries. Some flavors are associated with and sold only in a particular region of Japan–for example, there is a special matcha green tea KitKat tied to Kyoto and a custard-like kobe pudding variety available in Kobe. (Enterprising KitKat lovers who don’t live in Japan can find some of these unique flavors in Asian markets and eBay.)
Perhaps Kyoto, Kobe and other Japanese cities will get their own KitKat stores soon? Dryburgh says it is too early to say whether the KitKat Chocolatory concept will spread across the country. “This is a pilot. We are testing. Once things settle down, we’ll make a better assessment of what we do next with it. Certainly, we are open to the idea within Japan,” he says.
And how about elsewhere in the world? “Elsewhere in the world, we’ll see,” Dryburgh says. “Let’s assess the Japanese scenario first.”