What Tryhard American Kit Kat Says About American CulturePhoto courtesy of Kit Kat Food Features products
If you’re a fan of the Kit Kat bar in the U.S., you probably already know about its soaring popularity in Japan. Maybe you’ve tried the creamy, pale green matcha flavor or the delicate pink strawberry. In the Japanese market, the Kit Kat has a certain elevated cultural status. As Tejal Rao illustrates in a 2018 story for the New York Times Magazine:
“In Japan, you might find the Kit Kat at a drugstore, but here the Kit Kat has levels. The Kit Kat has range. It is found in department stores and luxurious Kit Kat-devoted boutiques that resemble high-end shoe stores, a single ingot to a silky peel-away sheath, stacked in slim boxes and tucked inside ultrasmooth-opening drawers, which a well-dressed, multilingual sales clerk slides open for you as you browse.”
We’re talking elegance. Smooth-opening drawers. Sophistication. Rao goes on to explore Kit Kat’s proliferation across Japan since its introduction there in 1973 and the role of novelty flavors in its success. In 2000, Nestlé (which owns Kit Kat in Japan) developed the first new flavor, strawberry, which became a smash hit. A few years later, the company brought on pastry chef Yasumasa Takagi to retain the momentum. Kit Kat is now permanently available in the country in seven flavors: milk chocolate, dark chocolate, strawberry, sake, wasabi, matcha and Tokyo Banana, a collection that manages to be creative and measured at the same time. As a unit, the flavors are balanced and elegant; even the bolder options like sake and wasabi are understandable in their singularity.
While a few of the Japanese flavors are reliably imported to the U.S. and are available at specialty grocers like H Mart, I’ve lately started to notice new American flavors at regular corner stores in Brooklyn: key lime pie, for example, or a mint chocolate “duo,” or blueberry muffin (??).
What’s the deal? I wondered. Is American Kit Kat trying to catch up to Japanese Kit Kat? Are we on our way to luxury Kit Kat boutiques in the U.S.? And, importantly, what gives me the distinct sense that, try as we might, the American Kit Kat will never reach as sophisticated heights as its Japanese counterpart?
It turns out that America has its own roster of permanently available novelty flavors. It includes your regulars: milk chocolate, white “creme” and dark chocolate. Then there’s a slew of two-tone, double flavored bars: Kit Kat DUOS Mint Dark Chocolate, Kit Kat DUOS Strawberry Dark Chocolate, and Kit Kat DUOS Mocha + Chocolate (though “mocha” already implies chocolate; I guess they didn’t realize). Rounding things out is Kit Kat “THiNS” Chocolate Hazelnut: a flatter, thinner Kit Kat with only two layers of wafer instead of the usual three. There are also limited edition flavors—at the time of writing, these include key lime pie, blueberry muffin and fruity cereal.
Taking a moment to compare this list to the Japanese one, you may feel it is markedly more, shall we say, complicated. American Kit Kat is a separate company from Japanese Kit Kat—here, the brand is owned by Hershey. While the simple fact of their separateness might account for differing approaches to flavor development, my bet is on something cultural. This smattering of DUOS, THiNS and over-the-top reconstitutions of things that were already multi-note sweets to begin with (key lime pie candy bar?) is a perfect picture of our maximalist American tendency to “innovate” into oblivion. Compared to its straightforward Japanese counterpart, the American roster is not only a stylistically clunky eyesore but a tryhard grasp at novelty.
It could be so simple—what about just peanut butter? raspberry?—but American Kit Kat makes it hard, asking consumers to understand and buy into two new sub-brands of the candy without establishing a solid foundation. Enshrining the DUOS and THiNS spinoffs in the permanent flavor canon before any interesting, single-flavor standard Kit Kat has a place there is chaotic and disorienting. The brand has overshot, leaping with too much fervor into an attempt at creativity and scrambling the simplicity that makes the Kit Kat special.
While the strawberry and dark chocolate DUO was the most edible of the bars I tried, its texture was waxy, and the two flavors didn’t blend together to achieve anything greater than the sum of their parts.
Conceptually, THiNS really warrant a dedicated thesis of their own. Kit Kat THiNS are part of a suspicious trend among many candy and snack brands to create a compressed, more lifeless version of their product. Take OREO Thins or Ritz “Crisp & Thins,” for example. While hazelnut would have been a great flavor for American Kit Kat to add to their permanent offerings otherwise, we would be wise not to accept THiNS as the vehicle. Can this be anything but a ploy to sell materially less product for the same amount of money while evoking health-consciousness despite the fact that it’s still, lest we forget, literal candy?
Outside of the swirl of DUOs and THiNS chaos, what’s to be said about the special edition flavors, which we can assume are probably market tests for permanent status? It’s true that the limited releases aren’t entangled in the sub-brand mess, but their issue is a part of the same overeager, maxed-out tendency to innovate. Take risks! Do the unexpected! And again, they’ve stretched too far: The overzealousness is palpable. Take the fruity cereal flavor. Fruity cereal is already artificially flavored in real life. An additional transmutation into a candy bar does us no favors; the result is cloyingly sweet in a way that clings wretchedly to the inside of your mouth. The key lime pie is plagued by a terrible artificial citrus, like a cleaning product, and is both worse than real key lime pie and worse than a regular chocolate Kit Kat. Lose-lose, lose, lose, lose.
There’s nothing wrong with pursuing complexity. To achieve complexity is to understand nuance, layers and intricacy. But there’s a line between complex and complicated, and American Kit Kat falls on the wrong side. While wasabi and matcha bars line the drawers of Japanese Kit Kat boutiques, Chocolate Hazelnut THiNS and Mocha + Chocolate DUOs seem better-suited for a concession stand at the football game, next to the Coors Light with color-changing thermochromic ink in the can and the 3D CRUNCH Chili Cheese Nacho Doritos.