Mondelez threatened Tony’s Chocolonely with legal action last week, after the ethical chocolate brand unveiled a wrapper inspired by Milka bars as part of a campaign.

Launched in Germany and Austria to apparently highlight the issue of child labour in the cocoa supply chain, the limited-edition wrapper was one of four designs inspired by popular chocolate brands (the others being lookalikes of Twix, Kit Kat, and Ferrero Rocher).

Commenting on the campaign, Tony’s said: “Most big chocolate companies don’t pay a living income price for all their cocoa, resulting in exploitation on cocoa farms, with 1.56 million children involved in child labour in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire.”

However, Mondelez didn’t appear to call out Tony’s’ mention of child labour. It was the challenger brand’s purple wrapper spoof that caused the chocolate giant to bring in the lawyers.

“We own a colour trademark in Germany and throughout Europe for the distinctive Milka lilac colour for food products,” a Mondelez spokeswoman said.

“As a matter of practice, to protect the values of our brands, which we have worked hard to build over hundreds of years, we express our concerns to third parties when they are using a protected brand element.

“We can confirm the current legal issue is limited only to trademark infringement matters and concerns,” the spokeswoman added.

A lesson in positive PR

Tony’s swiftly used the debacle to bring renewed focus to its anti-slavery campaign, delivering a valuable lesson in how to generate positive PR from a negative situation.

It unveiled a new, grey design to take the place of the contentious purple one and said it planned on appealing the injunction, but would comply by changing the packaging for “as long as we need to”.

“Let’s pay farmers, not lawyers,” it added.

This isn’t the first time Mondelez has faced sourcing criticism. It was rated “poor” in a report published by Ethical Consumer published at the end of 2023, for example.  

Protecting or damaging brands?

Neither is this the first time Mondelez’s fierce protection of its Milka IP has culminated in legal threats to a smaller manufacturer.

Mondelez Germany sent Primal Pantry a cease and desist letter in 2021 over the latter’s Cocoa Real Food Bars  – vegan snack bars containing dried fruit and seeds – because they were packaged in lilac wrappers.

Despite declaring “we will not be bullied by Mondelez” and appealing to its fans for support, Primal Pantry ultimately backed down, replacing its former lilac packaging for a red-brown alternative.

Mondelez justified its spat with Primal Pantry with the same statement it wheeled out for Tony’s three years later. It said it was seeking “to protect the values of our brands”. 

Mondelez’s actions were intended to ensure the protection of the brand, but they risk coming across as tone-deaf and potentially alienating consumers − especially younger shoppers who tend to be more aware of the social and ethical credentials of brands. 

Tony’s seems to understand the growing importance of being a mission-led brand. Last year, it appointed three ‘mission guardians’ to “forever protect” its goal of making chocolate “100% slave-free”.

Speaking at the time, Tony’s CEO Douglas Lamont said he hoped the move would “act as an inspiration for others to look more closely at what they can do to secure their mission too”.