Big interview: Hotel Chocolat digital marketing manager Matthew Keys

Hotel Chocolat has undertaken a multichannel makeover in the last 12 months, as the chocolate specialist made the move to wrap up its burgeoning business channels onto one online platform.

The last few years have seen the company extend its brand by opening its own restaurants and Cocoa Bar Cafes, and the group needed to rebuild its online offering to cater for this. But as the busy Easter period arrives on the calendar once again there is no sign that the business is resting on its laurels, with various new technological developments in the pipeline.

Matthew Keys, digital marketing manager at the retailer, told Essential Retail that a lot of the organisation's current focus is on what it can offer in terms of loyalty schemes, mobile payments and e-receipts, all of which can help Hotel Chocolat better understand its customers' behaviour whether they are accessing its shops online or in-store.

While those areas of retail excite Keys, and could manifest themselves at Hotel Chocolat in the near future, there is still work required to fine tune these particular strategies. In terms of the here and now, two of the company's main priorities remain improving the link between its stores and online channels, as well as looking outside of the UK for new opportunities.

One method for combining its store portfolio with the digital world is through the use of brand characterisation. Much like department store chain John Lewis, which achieved significant success through the creation of its bear and hare adverts last Christmas, Hotel Chocolat uses 'Beau Bunny' as part of its marketing artillery for the crucial Easter period.

"We ramp up our activity and have a very tight strategy around how we are going to deliver Easter," said Keys.

"With Easter and Christmas, we support sales with an omnichannel campaign that features our Beau Bunny. He's a character that is visiting approximately 30 sites around the UK and we have created a micro-website to support that."

Consumers can access the online portal and guess where the character is each day by entering their email address into the data entry system. This activity helps the company build its database, while participants also receive offers as a result of entering their details.

"It's a great way of tying in the stores with the digital element," the marketing manager explained.

"We get a lot of people click and collecting, so they can time their collection for when Beau Bunny is visiting – it drives in-store engagement."

Far from copying the John Lewis bear and hare Christmas idea, the bunny character was the brainchild of Hotel Chocolat creative director Timothy Rennie. Beau Bunny first emerged early in 2013, as part of a social media campaign to promote the brand.

Keys noted: "We rolled out a campaign that was well-received, and social media went a bit mad for him – so we're bringing him back again this year."

As a retailer that has led the way in terms of multichannel development over the last five years, John Lewis is one of the companies that Keys admits he considers a benchmark in the digital space. He also suggested there are a number of online pure-plays he monitors, including some smaller chocolate brands.

"We don't really focus too much on direct chocolate competitors, we look at other gifting retailers, and some of the guys I keep a close eye on are John Lewis and, which are doing great things online," he added.

Keys said that a significant proportion of the consumers heading to its stores or website are primarily looking for a gift, and this was an important consideration when working alongside eCommerce vendor Red Technology to launch the new website.

With the aim of providing "market-leading options" for gifting, the Hotel Chocolat website now allows shoppers to select multiple delivery addresses in one order, configure the items to be gifted and choose which specific products are accompanied by a message card.

"That was a massive leap for us," Keys stated.

"We should have been there doing that a little while ago, but we have benchmarked ourselves against some of the gifting sites and I think we're now up there in terms of what functionality we offer at the checkout."

Keys admits the previous online platform used by Hotel Chocolat had reached the point where it was "straining under the demand of what we wanted", and the new site allows the company to offer a more flexible delivery service. The key reason for the new portal, however, was to bring all of its new channels into one online home.

Digital marketing activity at the company now looks to cross-promote the separate channels as much as possible, so the burgeoning business is not viewed in silos.

"It's really important that each element of the business has a natural link between them. Our restaurants, for example, link really nicely with our Cocoa Cuisine range – and the website promotes that crossover between brands."

The brand appears to be in a good position at the minute, and café partnerships with John Lewis suggest that Hotel Chocolat is viewed favourably by the wider retail industry.   Having evolved from a pure eCommerce website to more of an experience destination in recent years, there could yet be more surprises on the horizon as the business continues its ambitious journey.

"Had you said two years ago that we'd have two restaurants and two Cocoa Bar Cafes, I would say that you're making things up," Keys commented.

"The senior team is so far ahead of where our minds are at, you never know what's coming around the corner."