Kit Kat’s coolest flavors aren’t sold in the US. Here’s why

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If you stroll through the real or virtual aisles of a Japanese store, you might find Kit Kats in flavors like salt lemon, caramel pudding, whole grain biscuit, melon, and milk tea. Good luck finding those at Target or Walmart in the US.

Kit Kat aficionados know that to find the most interesting varieties, you have to shop outside of the US or go to specialty stores that carry imported goods. Why? Because Kit Kat is distributed by different companies in the United States and internationally. In the US, Kit Kat is sold by Hershey. In the rest of the world, Nestlé’s in charge.

That means different flavors across the globe, and different recipes — even two versions of a dark chocolate Kit Kat, Hershey’s and Nestlé’s, don’t taste the same.

Both companies sell more traditional Kit Kats than the seasonal or limited-time flavors. But those unusual flavors are a powerful marketing tool. They create buzz and urgency, which help decades-old brands like Kit Kat stay relevant.

Nestlé has embraced partnerships and, in Japan, a large number of seasonal and regional flavors.

Hershey tends to be more conservative with new flavor launches, following the tastes of just one market, the US. And with Nestlé churning out so many new flavors, Hershey doesn’t need to do as much, noted Lynn Dornblaser, director of innovation and insight for Mintel Consulting.

Hershey is “letting Nestlé do the heavy lifting when it comes to the really unusual flavors,” Dornblaser said, which means Nestlé is essentially marketing for Hershey. “It’s a really fascinating dynamic.”

As long as Nestlé is offering new flavors across the globe, Hershey can stick mostly to its tried and true favorites at home.

Kit Kat wasn’t always controlled by two separate companies. At first, Kit Kat had nothing to do with either Hershey or Nestlé.

The treat was created by the UK candy company Rowntree’s, which debuted the chocolate as Rowntree’s Chocolate Crisp in 1935. A few years later, Rowntree’s renamed the product Kit Kat Chocolate Crisp.

After manufacturing and distributing Kit Kat for decades, the British company entered into a deal with Hershey, giving it control over US Kit Kat distribution in 1970. Hershey started making Kit Kats in its own plant in Hershey, Pennsylvania in 1973.

Then, in 1988, Nestlé acquired Rowntree Mackintosh, as Rowntree’s was called after a merger, and with it Kit Kat’s global distribution. Hershey maintains the US license.

Today, the chocolate remains a powerful brand, particularly for Nestlé.

Chestnut, sweet potato and Milo

Kit Kat is the biggest brand in Nestlé’s global confectionary business, according to Chris O’Donnell, who leads Kit Kat for Nestlé globally. “It’s [a] key priority for us,” he said. “We see huge growth potential [for] Kit Kat.” Hershey’s top brand, on the other hand, is Reese’s.

Nestlé has 13 Kit Kat manufacturing sites across the world, O’Donnell said, and uses different recipes for different areas. When Kit Kat develops new flavors, most of them limited-time offers, it’s looking to appeal to local tastes.

To do that, it’s leaned on partnerships with regional favorites, among other tactics. In Australia, Kit Kat collaborated with Milo, a chocolate-flavored malted powder and drink also made by Nestlé. In the UK, Kit Kat teamed up with Lotus Biscoff cookies.

In Japan, seasonal flavors have been especially successful.

Globally, most consumers are interested in “crowd-pleasing flavors,” like caramel, O’Donnell said. But in Japan, they “have a very wide appreciation for a much broader flavor profile.”

In 2000, Nestlé launched a strawberry Kit Kat in the country. It was a hit, and since then, the Japanese team has regularly developed seasonal flavors — like chestnut and sweet potato — in addition to regional flavors, like wasabi and roasted tea, only available in certain areas. These offerings are often bought as travel gifts or souvenirs, creating a market unto itself. Over the past few decades, Kit Kat Japan has launched hundreds of flavors.

Raspberry creme and ‘breaking bones’

In the United States, Hershey has a three-pronged approach, which includes so-called “everyday” flavors, seasonal offerings and limited-time launches.

Everyday flavors include milk chocolate, dark chocolate and white creme, plus some others, that consumers can buy year-round.

Then there are seasonal offerings, like raspberry creme and “breaking bones,” for Halloween. And finally, there are limited time offerings, which come out periodically. So far this year, Kit Kat has launched a churro flavor. Last year it announced a blueberry muffin flavor. The year before that it debuted key lime pie and fruity cereal.

New flavors are based on “what’s trending and which flavors will ignite the most enthusiasm,” said Justin Kukura, director of chocolate product development at Hershey.

But they’re no wasabi.

“American consumers love the familiar,” said Marcia Mogelonsky, senior director of insight for Mintel Food and Drink. Nostalgic candies, like traditional Kit Kat bars, exert a powerful hold over those who loved them in their childhood, she noted.

When people reach for a Kit Kat, they’re reaching for a reliable jolt of sweetness and good feelings, she said. “It’s fun to be challenged every once in a while. But the main thing you want is comfort.”

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