Mind the gap: Toblerone and other redesign disasters

The old Toblerone chocolate design (top) and new, gappier design (below). Darren Staples/Reuters

Toblerone chocolate is a brand instantly recognisable for its bars studded with pyramid-shaped mountains of chocolate. So the announcement from Mondelez International, the brand’s Swiss owner, of a redesign that will mess with its iconic shape seems an odd and ill-conceived decision. In reducing the number of pyramids by increasing the gaps between them, the firm risks permanently reminding its customers that they have bought a product that is no longer complete: the lingering impression is that they have bought a hole, not a whole, and that the product is less than it was.

If the motivation behind the decision is to tackle increased costs and reduced profit margins by shrinking the bar from 170g to 150g, surely it would have made more sense to make the bar smaller, rather than change the brand’s instantly recognisable shape. Among confectioners this approach has been used before in response to increased costs. As long ago as the 1930s, the KitKat has sold its two-finger bar alongside the four-finger version, and the smaller product remains the bestseller.

KitKat producers Nestle also devised a three-finger version for the Middle East market, and also introduced the enlarged KitKat Chunky. But these variations are a positive enhancement to the product’s iconic finger biscuit shape, and are imaginative and logical extensions of the brand’s image. On the other hand, it’s difficult to see how the Toblerone decision can be seen any way but negatively.

It’s well known in design that the spaces in between – what is referred to as “negative space” – when used carefully can become as important and effective as the positive forms that appear inside it. For example, look at the FedEx logo with its cunningly hidden arrow, or US broadcaster NBC and its peacock logo. These two brands have developed logos which make a virtue of how negative space can become a positive element in their communications.

But with Toblerone, the negative space is just that. Artists and designers employ white space as an important element in composition to create harmony and balance. The Toblerone design is the opposite: an extended space that appears out of place – like missing teeth, it generates a sense of a gap that needs to be filled. There is a strong symbolic suggestion of disharmony and loss.

The former Toblerone bar design: more peaks, smaller gaps. Charlotte Ball/PA

Over the years, there have been many examples of brands that lost their way, making decisions they later regretted due to poor consumer response or adverse political or cultural reactions. For example, re-branding the Post Office Group as Consignia was a hugely expensive decision, costing £1.5m to launch and a further £1m when the group reverted back to Royal Mail in 2002. The perceived wisdom was that the name caused confusion in the eyes of the public and failed to clearly communicate the services on offer.

In an effort to re-position British Airways as an inclusive, global airline, branding agency Interbrand Newell and Sorrell caused enormous controversy 20 years ago by dropping the existing livery’s red, white and blue and replacing it with diverse cultural images applied to the tailfins of BA’s fleet.

Newspapers leapt on what looked like an abandoning of the national flag, and former prime Minister Margaret Thatcher draped a handkerchief over a model bearing a newly branded tailfin design in a thinly veiled message of disapproval at what she saw as a betrayal of a proud national identity.

Replacing a cherished national symbol or name is controversial enough, but increasing the gap as a means of maintaining margins at the expense of the brand seems a foolhardy, potentially disastrous move. The problem with gaps is that you don’t always see them until it’s too late – and Toblerone’s manufacturers don’t seem to have heeded the warning.

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