Ethical chocolate brand Hey Tiger and Insta-famous shiba inu Tofu Chan might seem like an unlikely pair, but the chocolate they created together is literally the stuff of dreams.
The limited-edition bar, dubbed Tofu’s Dream, is creme brulee and black sesame dulcey flavoured, and sold out in just 18 hours.
Launched in 2018, Hey Tiger is the brainchild of serial entrepreneur and Envato founder Cyan Ta’eed.
Hey Tiger has long seen value in collaborating with other businesses, but this partnership was seen as a bit of a risk.
“We’ve already seen all the artisans and beautiful chocolates,” Hey Tiger brand director Mirte van der Lugt tells SmartCompany.
“I think the opportunity was to do something really different.
“And doing something with an internet dog is definitely different to what our competitors would do.”
Barking up the right tree
Hey Tiger has been selling “fresh”, ethical, handmade chocolates for less than a year, with a heavy focus on their social enterprising efforts in developing West African cocoa farming communities.
Tofu Chan is a shiba inu with 220,000 followers on Instagram, owned by Melbourne small business owner Dylan Jones. The famous pooch is known for videos with inspirational voiceovers set on the backdrop of bright colours and 90s J-pop graphics.
From the start, both van der Lugt and Jones were on board with the idea of a collaboration, but not everyone involved was.
“It took a little bit of convincing to the team that this would be a good idea,” van der Lugt admits.
“But I managed to convince them by saying, ‘give it to me as a pet project’ and yeah, it worked well.”
In defence of the creative team, the two businesses have very little overlap.
“I think that Tofu in general, some people just don’t get the humour and some people absolutely connect with it. I think some people in the team thought that’s a bit weird.
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“The other big objection was that ‘dogs don’t eat chocolate so isn’t that weird’, in which my response was, ‘well dogs don’t speak either so we’re already in a different realm’.”
The team eventually found common ground with Tofu’s brand and messaging, which aligns with their desire to change the way people think about chocolate.
Although Hey Tiger hopes its customers buy its chocolate for the flavour and product, van der Lugt is also keen to promote public awareness of the culture of mass exploitation in the industry.
Something the team became increasingly aware of as they worked with Tofu was the “genuine ‘I love you’ and ‘we’re all in this together’ vibe”.
“The reality is that not a lot of people watch Tofu because they have dogs or because they like dogs,” van der Lugt explains, repeating Jones’ insight into Tofu’s brand.
“They connect to Tofu because of Tofu, the character. It’s the love and positivity that he shares, so that’s what we tapped into.”
Developing the chocolate
Despite a rocky start, the rest of the process clicked into place smoothly once Jones joined the operation, van der Lugt says.
Because Tofu’s videos have bilingual subtitles in English and Japanese, van der Lugt admits she expected video calls to be the primary method of communication.
However, Jones and Tofu also live in Melbourne where Jones runs gyoza bar, Chotto Motto, so the collaboration was organised in person.
“When you’re working with people with whom you have such a creative click, it just kind of flows,” van der Lugt says.
“The collaborations that stand out, that we feel have really made a difference to our brand, and people really connected with, were those we had a personal connection with.”
Jones and his team handled the video production at the same time the Hey Tiger chocolatiers developed potential flavours.
“We originally thought to do a human bar and a dog bar,” van der Lugt says, but Jones convinced the team the dog community was not Tofu’s main audience.
Considering Tofu’s Japanese background, the idea of a matcha chocolate bar was also floated, but the chocolatiers couldn’t develop a matcha bar to the flavour standard Hey Tiger insists on.
They eventually landed on creme brulee with black sesame dulcey for Tofu’s Dream bar, because “the colour of the bar is the exact colour of the fur on Tofu”, van der Lugt explains.
Tofu Dream’s dream reception
Within six months of the first meeting with Jones, Hey Tiger launched the limited edition bar to the public, complete with a meet-and-greet event with Tofu.
“It was one of the bigger batches that we’ve done, but we didn’t know what to expect either,” van der Lugt says.
The size of the batch is a notable risk considering Hey Tiger typically makes small batches to ensure the chocolate remains “fresh”, distinguishing the brand from its major competitors.
“It was a stab in the dark, how much we could sell,” van der Lugt says.
“Dylan knew though — he said we’d sell out.”
The Hey Tiger team were more skeptical, and amused by Jones’ confidence in Tofu’s brand, van der Lugt admits.
Just a few hours into the launch day, however, the chocolatiers were told they would need to prepare for a second batch based on the sales figures.
Within 18 hours of opening, the first batch of Tofu’s Dream sold out.
A second batch was released a couple of weeks later, which also sold out.
Jones was right; Tofu’s fanbase was dedicated. Waiting in line to buy the chocolate bars, the Hey Tiger team were surprised to find fans wearing homemade Tofu T-shirts and sharing stories about how the dog’s sayings had made an impact on their lives.
“People were waiting in the rain outside Chotto Motto,” van der Lugt says.
“I spoke to a few of Tofu’s fans that day and a few of them had battled with depression and things like that. They said, ‘when I go to Tofu’s page, it just makes me so happy’.
“It’s not just jokey stuff, it’s doing real good to some people, which is something we try to do at Hey Tiger.”
Despite the enormous success, both Hey Tiger and Jones plan to hold off for a year before planning another collaboration.
“There is definitely opportunity to bring something back … Clearly, people went nuts for it,” van der Luft says.
Find the right partner
Tofu is not Hey Tiger’s first collaborator and it continues to find other businesses to run projects with.
Van der Lugt estimates that by the time she decides to meet with a prospective partner, there is about a 90% strike rate for a successful collaboration.
“I think it’s always hard to find people who are doing genuinely different stuff,” she says of the challenges.
But it’s these differences that will make products worth making, she says, reminding SmartCompany she needed to convince her own team of Tofu Dream’s viability.
Businesses searching for collaborators should be on the lookout for creative compatibility, van der Lugt says.
“I do feel that you need to find people that you genuinely and personally connect with, because then, the content from their side is going to be a lot more real and aligned with your brand than if you just picked someone from a list.”
This article was updated at 12:45 AEST on Monday, 21 October 2019 to note Jones’ team was responsible for video production and not the entire marketing effort.