Keeping a 60-year-old brand relevant to consumers while retaining its heritage and sense of identity is no easy task – which may explain why Belgian chocolate maker Chocolaterie Guylian has put off doing it until now.

Brought in with a brief to shake things up is Tom Snick, CEO of the business since February last year.

The Dutchman has plenty of experience in the food industry, having spent 13 years with Italian pasta and sauces maker Barilla after previous stints with yogurt maker Yoplait and consumer goods giant Unilever (albeit on the personal care side of the business).

In Guylian, Snick has joined a company that makes much of its romantic foundations.

The company was established by Belgian chocolatier Guy Foubert in 1958 and, according to company legend, “when Guy married his lover, Liliane, the two immortalised their passion for life’s sweetest pleasures, love and chocolate, by joining their names to one: Chocolaterie Guy-lian”.

The tale continues. “In celebration of love and chocolate, the couple created for the first time the Guylian Sea Shell Chocolates.”

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By GlobalData

Sixty-odd years later, the chocolate and praline sea shells remain the company’s signature product.

Schmaltzy or not, the story outlined above remains central to the Guylian image and the business, based near Antwerp, has sought to leverage its image of chocolate-making excellence and tradition.

But, while retaining those elements, Snick is taking a harder-nosed approach to the business and is overseeing a root-and-branch overhaul of how it operates.

When asked how to describe his approach, Snick uses the word “pioneering”.

He says: “It was a pre-requisite when I entered the company. I told them to promise me carte blanche or look for another guy. They accepted it.

“There is an enormous amount of potential at the company but it had become dusty. It had not been managed that well on the marketing side.

“I have had 25 years in marketing and sales and I have been given tremendous freedom. We are superbly agile and can take a decision in 30 seconds. We don’t have to ask for the approval of anyone.

“There was a sense of urgency to make this turnaround.”

As with many other companies, that sense of urgency was turbo-charged by the shock of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Guylian has always held a prominent position within airport duty-free shopping areas and the virtual shutdown of international travel when Covid first hit left that part of the company’s business decimated.

“That business was lost in 2020,” Snick says. “It came back to 25% of 2019 levels in 2021 and we hope to get back to 50% in 2022. But we need to find alternatives to duty-free.”

Guylian has been owned by South Korea’s Lotte Confectionery since 2008. Snick says it is an owner that does not interfere on a routine basis in the Belgian firm’s business.

He says: “We define our strategy, our mission and they are fully supportive.”

But he adds: “Of course, it helps if you are successful.”

And successful it still is. Turnover in 2021 was EUR70m (US$77.6m) and Guylian, which employs 230 people across business units in the UK, Germany and Iberia, sells its products across four continents in 120 countries.

But Snick believes it could be doing better and, to that end, has instigated a “thorough modernisation” programme. The headlines are about new packaging – which Snick describes as “a more contemporary and fresh design while retaining the luxurious look” – an upgraded recipe for its product to create a less sweet taste, a marketing push and reinforced ethical trading credentials.

New-look products will be in the shops from April and Guylian also intends to launch themed packaging around key gifting occasions including Mother’s Day, Easter and Christmas.

Snick says: “By changing our design and brand, we also want to introduce a broader target group to the unrivalled taste of our premium Belgian chocolate. The packaging will have a more contemporary and fresh design, while retaining the luxurious look.”

And, perhaps more importantly, Guylian plans to tell people what it is doing.

Snick says: “It had done no advertising for ten years, [there had been] no refurbishment or modernisation. It is an enormous iconic brand with great quality and a beautiful history. We worked with a design agency and we have kept all the iconic elements and just modernised it and made it more significant. We have also moved back to the original recipe from 1958 of 100% roasted hazelnuts.

“We are spending EUR5m in advertising for the UK, Germany, Belgium and Spain and would like to add one or two countries every year. We are also developing a TV commercial with a Swiss agency which is a piece of art.”

But, behind those efforts to revitalise the brand, other changes are afoot. These include SKU rationalisation to focus on a limited range, which will be available all year round and putting new product development on the back burner.

Snick says: “We cleaned our business – 700 SKUs down to 300 – with four key [product lines]. Sea Shells, Sea Horses, Temptations and the tablet.

“We need to see all these SKUs on the shelves before thinking about further innovation. We need to build the brand in the minds of consumers to help us [to develop relationships] with the trade.”

Longer-term, Snick wants to see further geographical growth, a move into channels other than retail and a bigger online presence.

“The UK is by far our largest market and then a number of countries all the same size including Germany, Iberia and Australia.

“We used to do a lot in US but lost it. We are now rebuilding there and it is one of our focus markets. We have found a Belgian guy who is a distributor there.

“There are strong development [opportunities] in Asia – China and Japan. In general, they like products with a strong heritage such as Italian pasta and Belgian chocolate.”

Guylian also does a “small amount” of business with a distributor in Russia. Snick describes its business in Russia as “not significant” but says there are no plans to end the deal despite the current turbulence in that region.

Further out, Snick says: “There’s also potential collaboration with other companies on products and we don’t have a multi-channel approach.”

But that’s all for the future and doesn’t form part of the current revamp.

“At the moment we are focusing on nine countries, duty-free and four ranges,” Snick says.

Sustainability credentials may also help it retain, or attract new, customers. Guylian has ambitions to be an ethical leader in the chocolate industry.

“We are now 100% Fairtrade cocoa, use no palm oil and use 100% recycled packaging. We are moving to become a CO2-neutral company,” Snick says.

“I’m a father of three children. We have chosen to take these huge steps because I feel we should act like this.”

Depending on your view, modernising a traditional brand during a period when food manufacturers are operating under difficult economic conditions may be seen as totally necessary to reinforce a USP or a risky venture eating up costs when inflation is rampant in the supply chain.

Snick takes the point. “Everything is going up. We need to find a way to cover costs without making it [the product] unaffordable,” he says.

The Guylian chief suggests “when you offer a premium product, you may ask a premium price for it” but describes Guylian as “an affordable premium brand” competing with both Ferrero Rocher and Lindt & Sprüngli’s Lindor.

However, he thinks cash-strapped consumers contending with rising household bills face more fundamental choices than whether to buy premium brands or not.

“It’s not that premium brands are suffering but more that the category is suffering and then everyone will feel it to a certain extent. If you have GBP100 (US$77.60) to spend you could [previously] buy 20 products and now you can only buy 15. You have to make a choice,” he says.

While making the point that chocolate is desirable but not a necessity, Snick suggests it may be the middle of the category that gets squeezed.

“The world is moving towards premium or value-for-money. People may choose to have fantastic chocolate once a week rather than something less good five times a week,” he says.

On a more brand-specific note, Snick will be hoping the money spent on the product revamp and advertising campaign will successfully merge together the contemporary and the traditional, retaining its existing customers and attracting new ones.

If that happens, it will help to fuel Guylian’s longer-term ambitions.

“We are a small brand everywhere in the world but we have strong growth plans,” Snick says.