Trust. It’s a simple word, with only five letters and one syllable. But it’s big in meaning, with the power to make and break governments. Trust is the essence of brand equity, of professional and personal relationships. That’s why it’s so important to us at Edelman. 

Trust makers: Our interview series explores the sharpest minds in marketing and communications in the Netherlands. Next up is Sabrina Spong, Movement Lead at Tony’s Chocolonely.  

Don’t be fooled by the bright packaging and the sweet taste. Behind the veneer of this increasingly visible brand is an important message–a vision and mission determined to make the chocolate industry 100% slave-free.  

Tony’s Chocolonely is the brainchild of Teun van de Keuken, a journalist who was shocked by the extent of illegal child labor and modern slavery common in West Africa, where most of the world’s cocoa beans grow. Teun decided to use his platform as a TV presenter on the show, Keuringsdienst van Waarde, to turn himself in as a ‘chocolate criminal’ and draw attention to the issue. This resulted in the first bar of Tony’s in 2006. 

Since then, Tony’s has grown from a scrappy start-up to a successful business, expanding its global footprint to include the USA and UK and in December it reached the €100M revenue mark. 

As a co-op with a fully traceable cocoa supply chain, Tony’s has opened itself up to criticism in the past, but the company maintains this is an attempt to change the industry from inside out. This is where Sabrina and the Comms team come in, managing the delicate dance between an ethical brand—that has been recognized by consumers as the Netherlands most Sustainable Brand three years in a row—and a viable commercial business. 

Words: David Kane

“Movement lead” sounds like an exciting job title. What does it involve, Sabrina?

It means that I am responsible for the global communications team, heading up a team of communications experts sitting in Amsterdam for an impact-driven brand with a mission. Tony’s has several goals, one of them being to establish a movement of fans who love the chocolate but also want to support our mission.  

We can only achieve our mission, making 100% slave free the norm in all chocolate, when everyone participates. As a communications team, we want to activate our fans by making them feel a part of our movement and that they’re making real chance, not only focusing on sales-driven motives. Ideally, they become active ambassadors and start poking Big Choco for us to move one step closer to our mission. 

On a day-to-day basis, I work with local marketing teams at our satellite offices. The entirety of our team is tasked with creating building blocks for them to localise our campaigns – from our seasonal chocolate editions to big impact moments – and assets to help build Tony’s in their regions.  

Tony’s has an unusual backstory, starting as a journalist’s initiative. How has it grown as a business? What’s the difference between now and when you started three years ago? 

There is strong proof that Tony’s model works and that the way we operate and do our business with our partners in West Africa does too. For instance, Tony’s aims to eliminate all illegal labour, including child labour, in the cocoa supply chain. Tony’s sourcing model has driven child labour from the industry average of more than 50%, down to less than 5% at its partner cooperatives. 

I believe that there is so much potential in what we're doing. It's huge. Having street fought our way to the 100 million revenue mark, I believe that we're at a point where we need to install further structure and strengthen processes in the way we function as a business to continue winning. 

As you probably know, for Gen Z it’s important to see what brands values and positions are on important issues–how is Tony’s addressing that audience? 

Our mission and our values are at the forefront of everything we do at Tony´s. We don´t shy away from being critical, towards ourselves or towards the chocolate industry or the world. We are also open and direct, maybe a bit ´typical Dutch, and always questioning the status quo to really keep on learning and keep ourselves on our toes and others on theirs. Also, this year we published the AFR, the Annual Fair Report. There, consumers can learn about the way we do our business, from the good stuff to the things we’re working on. We are honest about our strategy and about our goals, results, and the things that are not going well. That is one of the reasons why I wanted to work at Tony’s, because of the level of transparency. We acknowledge the mistakes we make, and we welcome feedback and embrace opportunity to learn.  

People eat chocolate as a little treat to themselves, but there is a human cost, like modern slavery and child labour. How serious is this issue? Can you put it into context for readers? 

According to the Global Slavery Index, there are 30,000 victims of modern slavery in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. These two countries are responsible for over 60% of cocoa production globally. When looking at child labour, more than 1.5 million children are working illegally in the cocoa sector in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. These numbers are huge but are an unfortunate reality behind big chocolate companies.  

 The chocolate industry is unequally divided. ‘Big Choco’, what we refer industry giants as, continue to pay a price set too low for farmers to make a living income. Subsequently, this pushes cocoa farmers further into poverty, which is the root cause of modern slavery and child labour. At its core, Tony’s Chocolonely exists to solve this and there are many steps that we have taken. 

We believe that business should stop putting profit before people and that this should be the industry norm, not the exception. 

We have a set of principles that we source by, we call them Tony’s five sourcing principles. They consist of fully traceable beans, paying a higher price for the cocoa to enable farmers to earn a living income, promoting strong cooperatives, so they can also professionalize and work on cocoa farming in a safe and sustainable way. All of the cocoa beans we use in our chocolate is sourced from our tried-and-tested 5 Sourcing Principles. We engage in long-term commitments; giving farmers income security, and coaching farmers to improve their productivity, cocoa quality and improve their agricultural knowledge on crops. 

We also always enter a 5-year Memorandum of Understanding with our partner co-operatives, versus other brands who may be going into one- or two-year contracts. We believe that by following our 5 Sourcing Principles, other big chocolate companies can help to change the industry for the better.  

It doesn’t feel like Tony’s is trying to obliterate the chocolate competition, but you want to have the same share of the pie, but a fairer pie. I saw that Tony´s came third on the Chocolate Scorecard 2022 and some big brands scored poorly or did not partake. Do you have a message to these businesses? 

We have a strong message that has led us to introducing Tony’s Open Chain. It’s an industry-led initiative that invites other chocolate brands to join our mission and transform their cocoa supply chain to source cocoa beans in the same ethical way as Tony’s. We now have 8 Mission Allies, including Tony’s, with Ben & Jerry’s having joined Tony’s Open Chain last summer in our Chocolate Love A-Fair. Our other Mission Allies are Albert Heijn, Aldi, Jokolade, Vly, the Flower Farm, and plus.  

As a business, what are your goals for 2023? 

Further growth. There’s the goal of sourcing 14 to 15,000 metric tons of cocoa beans. That also includes cocoa beans sourced through Tony’s Open Chain, which includes all mission allies. Another goal is to onboard three new Mission Allies into Tony’s Open Chain, because they also help us raise awareness and provide a message in the industry, the front-line, and, of course, they help us in increasing the amount of beans that we source. There is also the goal of growing the total amount of partner co-operatives that we work with in West Africa. We will be working with 11 partner co-operatives next year.

For the past couple of years, we have been making a lot of noise around human rights due diligence legislation and we are still waiting on several big decisions from parliaments, and outcomes in different markets, across many companies. We remain very vocal about wanting ambitious legislation because human rights should never be optional.  

Given your experience in comms and marketing, where do you see the sort of big bets in the next year/18 months/3 years. Is it AI, what is the way to get the message to people? 

I think the age of consumer agency will continue. Therefore, I think that brands that can channel this newfound consumer willpower will not only survive but thrive, turning loyal friends into active ambassadors. That is also our goal, especially for the movement team.

At Tony’s, we talk about Serious Friends, these are our active ambassadors that help us drive our movement forward. I think that community management that moves beyond the traditional sense of CRM management will become even more crucial.  I believe companies should invest more in walking the walk than talking the talk. We discussed how audiences have become more aware about issues of sustainability. Companies should show their consumer that they are not only talking but really doing everything and taking full responsibility for their supply chain. I think reporting is an opportunity to talk about the past and present challenges and to be transparent about your commitment as a business to people and the planet.

What is the most valuable piece of advice that you have been given in your career?    

I will share a recent one: To always pursue genuine connections with people. There is so much value in building real relationships with people you work with, you meet throughout life, or your work life. When you look back at your career, it’s those connections that not only make you successful but are also the reason why I love my job. For myself, if I look back at all the things that I have done, it is mostly the connections which I built. Even in South Africa, I still keep in touch with the people I worked with. We stay connected and help each other out when we can. It is not so much about the transaction of helping each other but more about the energy you get from it. 

I see your point, it is better to have a genuine connection than thousands of LinkedIn connections you have never really met. For the last question, and perhaps the most important, what is the best flavour of Tony’s?     

I could send you some, I think you have not tried them yet. We did launch the ‘sweet solution’ bars, two years ago. They were look-alike bars, but they’re made very differently, using Tony’s 5 Sourcing Principles. We made them to raise awareness and inspire the whole chocolate industry to act. One of those bars, was referencing, Ferrero Rocher. It is made with creamy milk hazelnut, and in my opinion, it tastes even better than normal milk hazelnut. I always have this one n stock at home. For me, the bar itself is also a proof of our activism and reminds me of the campaign which was well-executed and one of the boldest campaigns we did to date. I also think it is tangible proof of the fact that also other brands can make chocolate according to our principles.