Thursday, November 26, 2009

Book Review: Joël Glenn Brenner, The Emperor's of Chocolate

Author: Joël Glenn Brenner
Publisher: Random House, 1999

It took ten years, 250 interviews and countless phone calls, letters and emails for Joël Glenn Brenner to complete her investigation into the world of chocolate making. This investigation started out as a routine assignment for The Washington Post on how Mars succeeded Hershey as the preeminent chocolate company in the late 1980’s. However, the assignment soon turned into a more concentrated investigation when Brenner discovered how little was known about these two candy empires.

The result of her efforts, The Emperor’s of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars, is an impressive exposè of the two corporations that have defined and refined, standardized and strategized the public’s appetite for all things chocolate. Brenner’s book is an eye-opening and mouth-watering exploration of the all-too-real Willy Wonka world of chocolate making. In fact, one cannot help but feel a little like Charlie in the chocolate factory—bewildered, amazed, excited, frightened—when reading about the exploits of both companies.

Brenner approaches her subject manner on numerous fronts, including historical, biographical, economical and cultural reference points throughout her discussions. Her varied investigative positions provide for a vivid rendering of how the mutual interdependency that characterized the relationship between Hershey and Mars throughout the early decades of both corporations had turned bitter and hostile by the late 1980’s.

What plainly emerges from Brenner’s presentation is that the delectable, addictive sweets contained within various hued paper and foil wrappers are anything but representative of the chocolate world. This world is as cunning and ruthless as any other major industry; we just tend to naively think of it otherwise because of the resulting product. But the reality is that the world of chocolate is big, big business. Forget the Cola Wars. Brenner sharply demonstrates that Pepsi and Coca-Cola have nothing on the madness and meanness that permeates the chocolate world in general, and Hershey and Mars in particular.

Brenner’s main thesis is that “the histories of these two industry rivals are closely intertwined. . . . Mars would not have succeeded without Hershey and vice versa.” This intertwining is most evident in Brenner’s reinforcement of the fact that early on Mars’ relied on Hershey to provide the chocolate for their products. However, one of the most interesting ways Brenner goes about proving her thesis is in relaying how M&M’s got their name. The M’s stand for the two senior executives at both companies, Forrest Mars Sr and William F.R. Murrie, president of Hershey. The partnership between these two men, while necessary at first for Forrest Mars to increase the production and stature of this product, quickly soured as Mars’ ambitions clashed greatly with those of Murrie and Hershey. Brenner threads this story throughout the book, using it to link how the individual behaviors and perspectives of the principle players of both companies – Milton Hershey and Forrest Mars Sr – became actualized in their respective corporate philosophies and outcomes. In brief: “where Milton Hershey saw utopia, Forrest Mars saw conquest”.

To her credit, Brenner does not rush to give Mars the chocolate maker crown. Rather, she concludes that it is understandable as to why Mars succeeded Hershey in the late 1980’s. Forrest Mars’ hunger for conquering new markets led to an expansion of Mars Inc into the international market, and consequently the creation of a global brand name. Such hunger is evident in Brenner’s detailing of Mars’ shrewd capitalization on the Gulf War to snag military contracts from Hershey, and the ‘Snickerization’ of Russia.

Conversely, Hershey was imprisoned by its own philanthropic history, resulting in a closing of ranks rather than full-on expansion until the mid-1960’s. The principles of family and “staying the course” that built the company were by then stifling its ability to grow as aggressively as Mars. Hershey was (and still is) accountable to a trust that made competing with Mars very difficult. It was almost inevitable then that Mars would eventually take top spot over Hershey. But Brenner accurately states that the bitterness between the two companies will never be stayed as long as Hershey and Mars are players in the chocolate world; it will only continue to grow and lend itself to even more conflicts.

What ultimately makes Brenner’s book so fascinating is that she was the first reporter ever allowed within the hallowed walls of Mars Inc. She eagerly takes her readers inside along with her, shedding light onto all facets of their operations. Hershey and Mars reacted to her book by slamming shut their corporate doors. Mars even went so far as to fire the public relations consultants who assisted Brenner’s investigation. But their reactions just make Brenner’s book all that much more important, all that much more richer as we know that we may never get a glimpse inside this secret world ever again.

Perhaps the greatest compliment one can give this book though is that Brenner never gets stuck in the minute details of the story. The histories of Mars and Hershey are not easily uncovered or assembled, and she puts her journalist skills to good use. She easily transitions between time periods, people and places, being sure to pick up the threads in later discussions to ensure the continuity of her arguments. Her attention to the various ‘stories within stories’ such as Hershey’s experiments and subsequent discovery of the sour Hershey chocolate provides for a rich and multi-layered book that never gets bogged down in its own complexity. It oscillates neatly between a harsh exposè and an unabashed tribute to the candy addict in all of us.

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