Morinaga & Co. Ltd.’s Choco Monaka Jumbo ice cream is Japan’s top-selling ice cream, with one bar sold every 0.17 seconds or so. With that level of popularity, it is a ubiquitous, yet unique, ice cream thanks to certain secrets that prevent other manufacturers from copying it.
Monaka is a type of wagashi (Japanese traditional dessert) — sweet bean paste encased in a crisp shell made of rice cake.
However, Morinaga’s monaka are made of flour. It also replaced the sweet bean filling with ice cream and a chocolate bar to make Choco Monaka Jumbo, a fusion of traditional and modern ingredients. The very first version of the product launched 46 years ago.
In the long history of the company that was established in 1899, and now with its headquarters in Tokyo’s Minato Ward, Choco Monaka Jumbo is one of Morinaga’s most enduring items. Its sales have been on the rise for the past 17 years. It has also achieved the top sales among all ice cream products in Japan for 13 consecutive years.
The unique combination of ingredients and its long history are not the only reasons for its popularity.
A delicious solution
One clue can be found in its packaging and TV commercials. The phrase “paripari” has been used to describe the product since 2003. “Paripari” is a Japanese onomatopoeia for crunchy.
The satisfyingly crispy monaka shell is by far Choco Monaka Jumbo’s defining feature. Whenever and wherever ice cream lovers buy it — whether in Tokyo or in a rural village in Kyushu — the crunch is consistent. The question, however, is why the shells do not become soggy.
To cut down on the condensation, the monaka contains only about 5 percent water compared to the creaminess of the actual ice cream filling. Moisture tends to move from where it is abundant to where it is scarce.
To prevent the ice cream from making the monaka soggy, a thin layer of chocolate covers and seals the inner surface of each half of the shell so that they do not come in direct contact with the ice cream.
Even with this technology to create a consistent and thin chocolate shield, the best solution is still to deliver and sell the product as fast as possible to ensure the crunchiness lasts until they reach consumers.
To win the battle against time, Morinaga uses a special formula that relies on weather forecast data published by the Japan Weather Association and the product’s order history to predict demand for the following two weeks.
Based on the prediction, the factories decide the number of Choco Monaka Jumbo that they produce the following week. The products are not allowed to stay in the factories for more than five days; they are shipped out to retailers almost the instant they are made and packaged.
“This is how we keep just the right volume of production without overly manufacturing or stocking Choco Monaka Jumbo,” explained Azusa Murata from the frozen desserts marketing department of Morinaga.
Keeping it fresh
Ice cream is supposed to be a food item that lasts for a long time. For most confectionery makers and ice cream manufacturers, it is a convenient product category that is suited for extended storage, making it easier to develop a long-term sales strategy; especially because it is not even mandatory to print expiration dates on ice cream products.
“However, we are almost overly concerned with Choco Monaka Jumbo’s freshness for the sake of keeping the crisp texture of the monaka shells,” Murata said.
“Even during summertime when Choco Monaka Jumbo sells 10 times more than it does in winter, we do not build inventory ahead of the season. So the factories are running at full capacity in summer,” she added.
The sales representatives’ job is not encouraging the retailers to stock more; it is quite the opposite. They visit the retailers to make sure that they do not keep an excessive inventory and to see if the products are stored at the proper temperature and so forth.
Some of the boxes containing Choco Monaka Jumbo even have handwritten instructions on them such as “handle with care” or “direct to freezer.”
“The stores may be thinking ‘what a fussy maker,’ but good products continue to sell and generate profit for them, too,” Murata said, grinning.
Even to Japanese who know what to expect from the absurdly impressive seriousness and persistence of some Japanese companies, Morinaga’s exceedingly strict freshness control for Choco Monaka Jumbo is beyond imagination.
Improvements and renewals
Since the ice cream launched in 1972, it has gone through a number of improvements and reincarnations. One of the major changes was its name. Its first name was Choco Monaka, the original form of the product with chocolate covering the inner surface of the monaka, minus the chocolate bar in the center.
It was renamed to Choco Monaka Deluxe in the 1980s when chocolate sauce was added inside the ice cream, finally becoming Choco Monaka Jumbo in 1996 when the chocolate sauce was replaced by a crispy chocolate bar.
Many other minor improvements have been made in every aspect of the product such as production facilities, technology and ingredients, regardless of the timing of revamping other Morinaga merchandise that usually occurs every six months.
As a result of Morinaga’s exceptional efforts, almost all supermarkets, convenience stores and other retailers with freezers in Japan sell Choco Monaka Jumbo.
This is already a noteworthy achievement considering the fact that all manufacturers of frozen products are fighting for limited freezer space at every retailer.
“But the question is, how we can increase our sales further when Choco Monaka Jumbo is already sold at every supermarket and convenience store,” said Murata.
The company saw a chance in the surge of inbound tourism. Over 28 million visitors entered Japan last year, a 19.3 percent increase over the previous year, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization.
The number is expected to further increase until it reaches a peak in 2020, the year of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. “Those tourists could be a significant market if every one of them tries Choco Monaka Jumbo even just once,” she said.
Unlike Hi-Chew, the famous chewy fruit candy that is also produced by Morinaga and already sold overseas, Choco Monaka Jumbo is only sold in Japan because of the company’s uncompromising stance on the product’s freshness.
Remaining a domestic product has made it difficult for Choco Monaka Jumbo to gain international popularity. However, Morinaga is working to overcome this hurdle.
To reach out to foreign visitors more directly than TV commercials and learn from their responses to build a future marketing strategy, it released an English promotional video on YouTube on Sept. 14.
This was part of a collaborative marketing project with Shukuba Japan Inc., a company specializing in planning and managing guesthouses that mainly accommodate foreign visitors to Japan.
Takashi Watanabe, the executive director of Shukuba Japan, is a fan of Choco Monaka Jumbo; he held Choco Monaka Jumbo giveaway campaigns at three of his guesthouses this summer, hoping that the service would help the guests cool down after a day out in the intense heat.
Many of the guests were surprised by the crunchiness of the monaka. They were even more surprised when Watanabe shared what he learned from Morinaga’s website about the efforts to maintain the crunch.
He also put posters explaining the product on the shared refrigerators at the guesthouses. After seeing guests from all over the world enjoy eating Choco Monaka Jumbo, he thought it would be more effective if there were promotional tools in English.
The collaborative project between the two companies came about after Watanabe wrote a letter to Morinaga explaining the success of his campaigns and the need for English descriptions for the product.
Morinaga is also looking into the possibility of opening shops at international airports in Japan so travelers can purchase the ice cream before they take off and save it for later thanks to dry ice.
The company still insists consumers should eat Choco Monaka Jumbo as soon as they reach home to fully enjoy its crunchiness, but if realized, these shops will be a further step into the global market.