I find myself sitting at one end of a large boardroom table with a sheet of questions and a stack of three Prince Polo bars in front of me. Sitting at the opposite end of the table are two burly Icelandic men: the kind you would sooner come across guarding the door of a club on Laugavegur than in a conference room. They both stare at me expectantly.
The man to the right is Arnar Ottesen, sales and marketing manager for Ásbjörn Ólafsson, the company that imports Prince Polo to Iceland. The man to my left is Guðmundur Björnsson, general manager of Ásbjörn Ólafsson and grandson of the man who brought Prince Polo to these shores more than 50 years ago.
When Guðmundur sees I still haven’t tucked into one of the Prince Polo bars, he asks me directly, ‘Have you had a Prince Polo before?’ I assure him that I had tried my first Prince Polo the day before we meet, figuring I would be executed for meeting the men without knowing how the chocolate bar tastes.
The two men laugh heartily and Guðmundur adds, “Good, because the balcony is right there,” pointing towards the window behind me, “and there’s a pit full of reporters down there.” The men’s laughter erupts around the room.
Despite their intimidating presence, the two men are incredibly easy to talk to. They’re funny, good-natured and above all very proud of their little Polish chocolate bar that has dominated the Icelandic confectionary market ever since its arrival in 1955.
The Prince Of Iceland
The story of how the confectionary first came to Iceland is a fabled one. It started with a trade exchange between Poland and Iceland. “The Poles were buying herring from us and we needed to buy something in return,” Guðmundur explains. “So we bought vodka, timber, and Prince Polo.”
At the time severe tariffs existed on importing chocolates from abroad to protect the Icelandic confectionary industry. Prince Polo however managed to avoid these tariffs by being imported as a biscuit as opposed to a confectionary.
“For people our age it was the first confectionary that was available on the market from abroad,” Arnar explains. “Until 1980 we did not have Mars or Snickers or Cadbury products. Nothing. Prince Polo was almost the only thing on the confectionary shelves.”
Arnar and Guðmundur agree that much of Prince Polo’s enduring appeal can be attributed to the circumstances surrounding its arrival to Iceland. “I think because of how it came here it became very popular in early stages,” Guðmundur says. “It became a very strong brand in people’s minds.”
At the peak of its popularity in the 1970s, each Icelander was on average consuming one kilogram of Prince Polo per year. These days, Prince Polo averages about half a kilogram per capita annually in Iceland, an enviable statistic for any confectionary company. “[In the 70s] we were in a monopoly situation, but now we are in a huge jungle of competitors and still we keep up,” Guðmundur explains modestly.
In addition to its homeland, Iceland is the only country where Prince Polo is sold. While most Icelanders acknowledge that it comes from Poland, it is considered by many to be Icelandic confectionary.
Guðmundur believes its popularity here has something to do with the collective Icelandic palate. “It wouldn’t be so popular if it didn’t suit our tastes,” he says. “If you look at the market, it’s very liquorice and chocolate driven. So there is this acquired taste that we have that is different from a lot of the other Scandinavian countries; they’re not that into that.”
The men find it difficult to pinpoint what exactly it is about the bar that appeals so much to Icelanders, but believe it’s very much a taste you grow into. “When you went to your grandparents, they would have a box of it, and that would be your treat,” says Arnar. “I think it connects people to their childhood,” Guðmundur offers. The two men turn to each other at this point as if reflecting on their younger days and the part the chocolate bar played in it.
They tell me that some even consider—if jokingly—a Coca-Cola and Prince Polo to be the Icelandic national meal. In fact Prince Polo is one of just a handful of companies globally that Coca-Cola has advertised with, the conglomerate clearly sees the value in attaching itself to the chocolate bar. “It’s a great combination,” Guðmundur says of the ‘national meal.’ He and Arnar steal a guilty glance across at each other before looking down at their own bellies and breaking into simultaneous laughter.
Kats Out Of The Bag
I’m a bit nervous about the next part of our chat. The two men have won me over about the Prince Polo bar. They’re so passionate about it and have so much of themselves tied up in its success that I feel terrible about mentioning that Kit Kat outsold Prince Polo for the first time in 50 years last month.
When I finally ask, they each offer a calm, knowing smile in return. “We corrected that,” Guðmundur assures. “It was a mistake.”
Last month Icelandic news reported that Kit Kat had edged out Prince Polo by 0.4% for the first time in 50 years, according to a Capacent poll. When they read the news, neither of the men could understand it. “We get the same numbers and it didn’t fit. We saw that there were errors,” Arnar says.
In the period being looked at Prince Polo sold 1.5 million units, while Kit Kat had sold 970,000, which means that Prince Polo outsold them almost two-to-one. It turned out to be a calculation error from AC Nielsen.
So it was a big mistake then, I say. “It was a big, big, big mistake,” Guðmundur replies.
On discovering that the numbers didn’t add up, Prince Polo contacted the group and asked them to double check. “This was in the air for 24 hours. And we asked them to check, and it was an error. So it was removed. We decided not to shout too much about it,” Arnar says coolly.
Guðmundur jumps in, “It was a nice dream they had, but not true,” he laughs.
Not Too Sweet, Not Too Heavy
Despite the sense of tradition it has in Iceland, the men believe much of Prince Polo’s appeal can be attributed to the sense of balance the bar has in contrast to its competitors.
“Too sweet,” Guðmundur says of the competitor bars. “You’re not overdosing with one Prince Polo but you could be overdosing with a competitor bar,” he says. Arnar adds, “and because they’re so sweet, you can maybe just eat one. But the Prince Polo, you could easily eat two,” he says matter-of-factly.
They tell me about how studies and articles by health experts have talked about Prince Polo favourably. “For example I saw a doctor saying that if you have diabetes, and you need something sweet, it’s good to have Prince Polo because it’s not too much of a shock, it helps stabilise you,” Guðmundur says, before quickly adding “but now I’m in a grey area. I don’t want to say ‘doctors recommend Prince Polo’” and the erupting laughter from the two resumes for a few seconds. “But we do have a lot of positive input from groups that are on diets.”
Unsurprisingly, the chocolate bar itself has barely changed in the more than 50 years it’s been on the market. The only real change in fact hasn’t been to the chocolate, but to the packaging. In 1992, new EU regulations stipulated that each chocolate bar needed to be individually sealed, meaning they had to update the packaging from the previous open wrap design.
For such a seemingly minor change, it received a fiery reaction. “The angry ones, we still hear them saying, ‘Why in the hell did you change Prince Polo?’” Guðmundur says. “Like it was up to us!” Arnar adds.
Guðmundur still remembers the day they announced the changes. “It got a lot of attention. People were trying to buy up old stock. It would be the Icelandic equivalent to when Coca Cola changed their recipe and everything went berserk,” he says bemused.
“One guy even called me and said, ‘What are you going to next, change our national flag?’ So he put it into perspective,” the men laugh.