The Curious Case of Kalev’s Product Placement

Natalia Hoffman is an independent researcher into the visual communication of Estonia with the Estophilus programme, an exchange student in Tartu from Aarhus University, Denmark, where she’s finishing her MA in Cognitive Semiotics, and a beetroot juice drinker big on detective stories who dresses in secondhand shops and watches TV for the sake of advertising. This is her first instalment in the series:

Case Studies on the Estonian Universe of Visual Meaning 

This is a regular chocolate stand in your local Estonian supermarket in December. There is plenty of choice to stock up on for Christmas, and all by Kalev – Estonia’s favourite and the largest and oldest confectionary company, which has been on the market since 1806. Estonian guidebooks say you haven’t fully experienced this country until you have had a piece of Kalev…

Kalev chocolates in a local supermarket in Tartu
Now, dear reader, have a closer look at the top and second-to-top shelves. If you’re still unsure what I’m on about – like on those rare occasions when at a party you join a group of people deeply engaged in a conversation on a topic of dubious origin, and before you know it you find your head nodding in agreement as if your head belonged to a bobbing head doggie drivers have in their cars – I’ll present some clarification below.

I’m talking about Kalev’s Maiuspala praline candy (top shelf) and Kalevs liqueur-filled chocolates (second to the top). For the fairness of it, I took upon myself the advertising of praline candies, to match the ingenious advertising poster of liqueur-filled chocolates which I found displayed at a bus stop.

Ads for the Kalev chocolates
As a cognitive semiotician and an international spy in cultural affairs, it is my duty and moral obligation to give you a clear-cut analysis of such signs of visual communication. I put my hands in the air for the liqueur-filled chocolates. Both the packaging and the creative execution of the idea are ingenious. You get an older, handsome and wise (white-haired) gentlemen, a smart-looking, high-up executive, a foreigner himself or an Estonian with foreign interests (fashion style) and all-around coolness, demonstrating his approval of Kalev’s chocolates. It’s not a coincidence they’re filled with “pure alcohol offering exclusive flavour experiences” (from the company’s website). All executives drink – you’ve seen ‘Mad Men’, haven’t you? They sit on their leather sofas (the fabric which the chocolates’ packaging so aptly resembles) and drink to the deals they’ve just made. Those are real men. In the 60s. Ah, the bygone era and the prestige of those jobs…

Nostalgia is a powerful selling device, and the tougher the times and the job market, the more we tend to glorify the past (Martin Lindstrom makes this point in his book Brand-washed). And here even the colours were designed to induce it. So, who are these chocolates for? On their website, Kalev advise us that “Due to their beautiful packaging, the candies make an excellent gift”. Yes, they do. I’m buying them for Christmas for all the men in my family whom I suspect of secretly longing for the sweet taste of power and recognition. Or even the illusion of those. The chocolates contain alcohol after all – alcohol increases levels of dopamine and serotonin, and dopamine and serotonin are reward and pleasure buttons in our brains – it’s a win-win situation!

But what about Kalev’s Maiuspala praline candies? How does an Easter-themed box of chocolates find its way to the top shelf during the Christmas period? Don’t they know at the supermarket that traditionally the top shelf is reserved for the top goods, and if these are indeed top goods why didn’t they all vanish off the shelf and into the shoppers’ baskets over the Easter period, I ask?

Various eye-tracking experiments have demonstrated that only the top-shelf positions carry through to brand evaluation; in other words, those products catch our attention and keep it for longer, as we make our purchase decision. But as I examine the chocolates’ packaging, a feeling of confusion slowly takes over. Not only do the Maiuspala candies cause a seasonal clash of interest, but they also portray a little girl dressed in what resembles the colours of Estonia’s flag’s, with the small difference that the black stripe was replaced with yellow to match the colour of a chick the girl’s holding by her face… Am I missing out on something?

Recently, I visited the Science Museum in Tartu. There was a glass incubator with several chicken eggs lying under a strong lamp. You could watch the eggs’ shells breaking live and the chicks hatching. Needless to say, the incubator was surrounded by a group of children glued to the glass. They were all cheering for the chicks…

Yes, I see the cuteness of it all: an adorable, blond-haired, blue-eyed, healthy-looking patriotic girl and not one, but several, fluffy chicks standing on either a piece of ground or on a massive lump of chocolate – hard to say, with crops behind them, all served in matching colours. Very retro, but rather tasteless. I have never tried the chocolates themselves, but neither do I want to, as I wouldn’t like to imagine chicken walking on the chocolate nor a girl that’s a bite away from decapitating one of them, as I nibble on my piece of Kalev…

Strange as it may sound, this is the kind of instinctive thinking that goes on in our heads every time we choose one product over another. Our shopping decisions are largely driven by subconscious mechanisms and a whole series of immediate chain associations that a packaging awakes in our minds (more on this in Martin Lindstrom’s book Buyology). A company can be more or less successful with that. The same rings true for the chocolates’ product placement. It can be more or less fortunate.

All in all, no matter which shelf they end up on, Kalev chocolates are a mine of associations and meanings – for Estonians because they’ve been around for over two centuries, whilst for foreigners for the same iconic reason and the chocolates’ ‘must-try’ nature. Their packaging is nothing but an exciting playground for visual communication and incitement. I would be happy to hear what the dear reader has to say about it. Do leave a comment!

Interested in semiotic analysis? Check out our master’s programme in Semiotics.

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  • ap84

    Well, the point with Maiuspala is that this packaging originates from the 80’s, so everyone has rather nostalgic feelings with this picture. And I presume that this is one of the top sellers of Kalev, exactly due to the nostalgic value, hence also the top shelf position.

    • Natalia Hoffman

      Thanks for the cultural insight. You might be right about the shelf positioning in this case if Estonians do feel so strongly about Maiuspula.  

  • Gemma Atkinson

    Recently, my boyfriend and I (neither of us are Estonian) were in a supermarket with our Estonian boss, and started giggling at that packaging with the girl looking like she’s about to take a bite of a chick. Our boss explained that this is some classic pic that’s been around for decades, and it seems to evoke a sense of nostalgia in Estonians that I suspect is actually much deeper than that evoked by the suave old gent with his liqueur chocs. Just something to think about, I guess: as foreigners, we are oblivious to those cultural associations as we wander around the supermarket.

    • Natalia Hoffman

      Good point Gemma. It is the goal of this series to uncover the various misconceptions foreigners might have about Estonia. Also, it is a curious thing with nostalgia being induced ‘artificially’ in case of the liqueur-filled chocolates (since the packaging does not represent anybody important to Estonia, and instead only creates a feeling of importance and prestige), while Maiuspala chocolates have acquired the nostalgia status from being around for c. 30 years now. 

  • Hannele Känd

    Maiuspala is probably the best chocolate you can get (in my humble opinion!). 🙂

    • Natalia Hoffman

      I shall bring myself to try them then! 🙂

  • It’s a traditional package for those chocolates and I remember them from my childhood (I’m 32). They have been one of my favourites regradless of green-colored nuts on top of the chocolates (It’s only the color I dislike). A year or so back, Kalev reshot the cover photo to match the original as closely as possible. Nobody wanted changes here. This cover is the sign of quality and tradition and nostalgia; something people know. I always look at this cover with good emotion. These chocolates and this cover have been to my family longer than Christmas (bear in mind that Christmas was discouraged in Soviet times and the Western style flamboyant and advertising-rich and consumerism-promoting Christmas is, fortunately, a late occurance here). Why would you want to change these good childhood memories for some commercial and really tacky SantaClause or reindeer photo? I buy chocolates based on how good they are, not based on how red or shiny the box is. This is my number one pick to accompany Christmas gifts.

    • Natalia Hoffman

      Hi Merike, thanks for the comment!

      Nostalgia is a funny marketing trick, in that it feeds off the hardwired feelings of belonging and familiarity, so much so that people might dislike or object to the changes in their favorite chocolates’ packaging design.

      Just on a side note – for someone who is unfamiliar with the product the box matters in taking the final purchase decision, that’s just how our brains work. Generally, the packaging and form of presentation play an important role in how we feel about product. For example, happened many times that people swore they loved Coke not Pepsi, they were then given those drinks to sip on, but were also misled into thinking that what they drunk was Coke, while it was Pepsi and vice versa. Fancy brain monitoring devices indicated that the experiments’ participants felt pleasure when drinking what they thought was Coke, and it didn’t matter that it wasn’t.

      When it comes to Maiuspala, I am far from postulating swapping a girl with chicks for Santa Claus or a reindeer. Now I think Kalev did a great job with this one, if Estonian people like it so much. Thanks for the insights!