BLOG: Can an old ice cream brand stay cool?


October 02, 2017

by Vicki Hamilton

My colleague and I just returned from a week in our New York office. 

In and around work and meetings, we had time to do a little sightseeing and filled our cameras with selfies in key TV locations (Perry St. obvs), but mostly… pictures of food packaging and products. 108 on my phone alone, who knows how many on Luisa’s!

We spent time at Whole Foods in Yonkers, lost hours in a deli that never ended somewhere in Chelsea, got distracted by the food hall at Grand Central, were drawn into an artisan food store at Chelsea Market – even Duane Reade proved interesting. Every aisle served up the most incredible variety of products, sharply designed and targeting every conceivable need and desire.

Vegan, paleo, macro, GMO-free, gluten-free, dairy-free, nut-full – it’s all there. And the flavor combinations! Basil-citrus jerky, prosecco salami, vodka pasta sauce and black fig chocolate are just a couple that I remember off the top of my head.

And there were innovative and exciting pack formats, as well as plain different pack formats from the UK (this OJ jug from Tropicana is a stroke of family-size genius in my opinion).

But amongst all this new and exciting stuff, there were of course some old classics – heritage brands that are omnipresent. And it was here, surrounded by vibrant and ABUNDANT young brands, we began to realize the scale of the job they need to do.

The ice cream category alone is a fascinating mix of language, flavors, ingredients and colors – and importantly, new pretenders to the ‘premium’ space.

Van Leeuwen’s vegan ice cream is serving up 'premium' through a sophisticated and soft block color palette and contemporary script typeface, both of which subtly communicate a rich creaminess (we call that ‘sensory branding’ folks – I’ll bore you with more on that another time). Their ‘story’ centres on organic ingredients, small batch production and depth of flavor in the individual ingredients – as well as their ‘obsession’ with sourcing the best. 

Mr Green Tea Ice Cream Co. leads on the latest healthy ingredients – green tea, azuki beans and chai – while the Big Gay Ice Cream Co. are tapping into a whole other vibe, with unicorns, rainbow packaging, and amusing names like 'Dorothy'.

Haagen Dazs is present, but it’s clear that it no longer owns the freezer. The packs look beige – almost clinical among the competition. The language is corporate in tone – respectful of the brand’s heritage, but removed from it. And the flavors are classic. Nothing wrong with that - but the combination of all three results in a brand that feels pretty tired. And this is an emotive category!

So what to do? It might be that sales don't give cause for concern - so nothing. Or a knee-jerk response might be to thrash out some trendy flavors and change the packaging. I don’t think either scenario has legs – do nothing and you might wake up one day and find the landscape changed and the scale of the task is terrifying. Or make incremental changes and boost short term sales, but the integrity will be lacking. The same goes in a number of other categories who are trying to push water up-hill.

I propose a different strategy.

If it were me, I’d stop. 

I’d do my research – I mean, really get in there and find out what Haagen Dazs means in the current US marketplace, and what it could mean instead. Find out who the new consumer is. Forget incremental changes and focus on developing a ruthlessly relevant proposition that’s true to Haagen Dazs but that creates excitement and intrigue. Build the brand, product and pack from the ground-up, in just the same way as all these startups – who are winning because their passion and commitment to the brand is tangible. Their livelihoods depend on it. 

HD brand communication has long focused on anticipation of the slow melt and velvety texture – so as a starter for six, how could their packaging better use sensory cues to support that story?

One of the advantages that big brands have over startups is the ability to move resource around and fund the strategic work that supports bold, new thinking. Pausing and starting from scratch might seem counter-intuitive to the ‘agile’ innovation culture we find ourselves in, but here at MMR we’ve observed that it’s possible not only to save a great deal of time and money overall by doing the right groundwork upfront, but to develop a proposition with a far greater chance of success.

A relevant, targeted ice cream, with great flavor, perfect sensory delivery and all the integrity of a heritage brand? Sounds pretty cool to me.

Vicki Hamilton is Associate Director of Marketing Communications at MMR.

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