By Maria Steinberg
Purple sweet potato, soy sauce, blueberry cheesecake, and rock salt all have one thing in common besides belonging in the food category. They also happen to be flavors made available in Japan at one time or another for the chocolate confection, Kit Kat. Swiss-based Nestle, its manufacturer, started selling the chocolate covered wafer bars in Japan in 1973 but only began introducing newfangled flavors in 2000, after realizing that the Japanese found uniquely flavored chocolate bars immensely appealing.
To date, Nestle Japan has introduced over 300 flavors, many of them based on Japan’s regional food specialties, some seasonal, and others on popular or trendy flavors. Most of these were limited edition flavors, which further contributed to the candy bar’s success as it suggested rarity and drove consumers to seek them out. But the popularity of its flavors is just part of the story. What has driven these limited edition and seasonal flavors has much to do with the retail practices of convenience stores or conbinis in Japan. Conbinis such as 7-Eleven and Family Mart are beloved fixtures of Japanese daily life. The competition is fierce among these stores, who practice stocking store items for very limited periods and replacing them with new items to keep consumers interested. As a result, many brands, including Kit Kat, continually create new varieties in the hope that the new items will win shelf space at the stores and sell quickly. Fortunately for Kit Kat, the sometimes strange (just recently, it introduced a cough drop flavor) and often times delicious-sounding flavors they’ve created have captivated Japanese consumers.
It is also a happy coincidence for Nestle that “Kit Kat” in Japanese is a close approximation of the phrase “kitto katsu,” meaning “surely win.” Thus, it has become a favorite gift and good luck charm to give to students about to take exams. Riding on that lucky charm reputation, Nestle and Japan’s postal service once came up with a very successful marketing campaign wherein it offered special Kit Kat packages and allowed senders to write good luck messages to mail along to the lucky recipients.
Lucky charm or not, what makes Kit Kat bars irresistible are its flavors. What other chocolate confection can be eaten in flavors like cherry blossom, azuki bean, ginger ale, and butter? The sake Kit Kat made with sake powder and white chocolate was a heady success. Other regional specialties that the brand has co-opted include flavors based on Okinawa’s tart citrus fruit called shikuwasa and Hokkaido’s Yubari melon (with mascarpone). Nestle also collaborated with a top Japanese chef to create flavors for their Chocolatory stores, which are premium outlets for selling trendy and original Kit Kat flavors including orange cocktail noir –dark chocolate with orange and rum powder — and their “Luxury Every Day” Kit Kat made with milk chocolate, almonds, and cranberries.
You need not plan a trip to Japan, however, to obtain these much-coveted confections. NYC-based Japanese groceries and online stores sell sample packs of some popular flavors. One can only imagine what the flavor gods at Nestle Japan are cooking up these days. With the success of savory flavors like soy sauce and roasted tea, could ramen and karaage Kit Kats be far behind?