Hershey’s Gooey Chocolate Mess

It’s hard to imagine an American brand with more inherent goodwill than The Hershey Company.

Friday that goodwill got put to the test when “The Today Show” revealed that the chocolate maker has stealthily substituted vegetable oil for cocoa butter in several of its products, alienating chocolate lovers.

The Internet isn’t exactly buzzing about the news. (Although Candy Blog broke the story.) But Hershey’s stock did dive 4.75 percent on Friday—losing nearly a half-billion dollars—while the rest of the market soared.

Hard to say the two are related. But Hershey might be headed for a much larger meltdown, if it doesn’t head off this issue fast.

Up until now, company officials have taken a hard line, saying: 1) we had to change because of rising costs; 2) the ingredients are clearly labeled on every package; 3) the majority of its products—including the original Hershey’s Bar—are still made with genuine cocoa butter.

All true, of course. But that’s not what this is all about. This is all about TRUST. By not announcing the switch, Hershey looks like it was trying to put one over on consumers. In that context, the company’s current “Pure Hershey’s” campaign (above) also leaves a duplicitous aftertaste.

With Halloween just around the corner, Hershey needs to stop rationalizing and start apologizing for not being more open about the change. Maybe it should even give away free samples, so “consumers can decide.”

People will forgive Hershey. But only if the company holsters its corporate jargon and starts addressing the emotional heart of this issue: Consumers feel hurt and betrayed by a brand that they love.