Though the treat arrives wrapped in gold foil, the company was born from humble beginnings (though the heirs of the Ferrero Rocher empire would eventually have net worths estimated to be in the $20 billion range). When patriarch Pietro Ferrero was running his pastry shop during World War II, ingredients like chocolate were in short supply, so he used hazelnuts to compensate. The mixture he invented was first called “SuperCrema” before it became “Nutella” in the early '60s by combining the portmanteau of “nut” and the Italian word for sweet -- “ella.”
Ferrero Rocher made its debut in Europe in 1982, and its coconut-almond counterpart, called Raffaello, followed suit eight years later. Pietro’s son Michele, credited with coming up with the chocolate, was a devout Catholic who made an annual pilgrimage to Lourdes, a popular religious site in France. When Michele died in 2015 on Valentine’s Day at the age of 89, it was reported that his inspiration for Ferrero Rocher was the Roc de Massabielle, a spherical-shaped grotto at Lourdes where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to St. Bernadette, then a 14-year-old peasant girl who saw apparitions while she was out gathering firewood.
So it's not surprising that eating a Ferrero Rocher is almost like a religious experience. Chocolate and crushed hazelnuts give way to a delicate crispy shell, which holds a glob of creamy Nutella-like chocolate. At the center is a single, whole hazelnut, mimicking the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes, shrouded inside the cave where the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette.
But how did a religiously-inspired Italian candy become beloved by immigrant communities in America? Like many things, the answer is found in marketing. While other chocolate brands like Godiva marketed itself in luxury shopping centers, Ferrero Rocher was easily found stacked in the aisles of ethnic supermarkets whose owners imported them from abroad, and then eventually in American drug stores like CVS and Rite Aid. Shinier and pricier than Whitman’s or Russell Stover and with a foreign flare that oozed European refinement, it was instant, obtainable wealth.
“There’s Never Been a Fine Chocolate Like This Before!” Ferrero Rocher ads declared, and we ate it right up. It was the perfect marketing ploy directed towards the perfect target audience, and it worked.
In an effort to achieve international chocolate domination, Ferrero Rocher set up plants and production centers in Eastern Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa, and further invaded the subconscious of Romanians, Yemenis, Indians, Armenians, Lebanese, Chinese, Nigerians, and more, who were attracted to its status as a luxurious, imported foreign product.
In Hong Kong, the chocolates are known as “gold sand” and they quickly became a marker of social class. Hong Kong businessmen took Ferrero Rocher to mainland China as gifts, especially during Chinese New Year.
“These Hong Kong gift traditions and customs were eagerly adopted, particularly by the 80 million Chinese living in Guangdong and this was the genesis of Ferrero Rocher’s link with China and its gift-giving traditions,” wrote Lawrence L. Allen in Chocolate Fortunes: The Battle for the Hearts, Minds, and Wallets of China’s Consumers.
China’s foreign trade restrictions kept Ferrero Rocher out, but when it did eventually become established in mainland China in 2007, fake Ferrero Rochers were already being produced. One popular copycat, according to Allen, was Fretate Relish. Another was Tressore Dore, which was ordered to cease production in 2008 and pay the Italian company over $43,000 in damages.