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The Emperors of Ice Cream

Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream. - Wallace Stevens
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by Stacey Norwood
for Saltshaker Marketing and Media

Legend has it that, in 1922, shortly after reading what remains Wallace Stevens' most iconic poem, an ice cream company representative fired off a letter to the poet. The man was confounded by the language and imagery in The Emperor of Ice Cream and demanded to know whether Stevens was "for" or "against" ice cream. 

Not an unreasonable question.

The poem is set at a wake of a little-known woman of clearly lesser means, where ice cream is being served in cups to the friends and family filling her modest home while she lays covered in another room. But given that the silky, sublime confection appears to be, at least superficially, a potent symbol of life and the celebration thereof amongst the gathering mourners, it would seem that Stevens was "for" it.

And aren't we all? Ice cream remains one of the most enthusiastically consumed desserts in the U.S., to the tune of 26 liters per person annually, on average. And it can be a profitable business for the makers delivering the goods. According to a report from Statista, as of January 2016, total U.S. sales for the past year in the ice cream category scooped up a little over $5 billion. Made with a few core ingredients—namely milk, cream and sugar—ice cream may be a guilty pleasure, but as in the famous poem, it's also an everyman indulgence. With price points options that range all over the board, and regional and hyper-local flavor trends that appeal to a broad demographic range, there is quite literally an ice cream for anyone with a craving.

We recently reached out to three companies—including No. 3 on that $5 billion list of producers—to ask what drives them to market, jerks them out of bed every day, and how they are connecting with an ever-shifting consumer landscape. Some of their answers will surprise you.

Ben & Jerry's

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According to a report from Statista, Ben & Jerry's is taking home the bronze in American ice cream sales. With private label sales leading the pack, followed by Breyer's, the little ice cream that could from Vermont isn't so little anymore, boasting $465 million in sales last year. Owned by Unilever, but governed by its own board of directors, Ben & Jerry's remains a pioneer in the premium ice cream category. P.R. Media Maven Lindsay Bumps and the company's U.S. Digital Manager Kate Paine share a little bit of the method behind the delicious madness.

Q: Ben & Jerry's was one of the earliest adopters of social media. What is your master strategy on using different platforms to engage with different audience segments?

A: We understand there is no one-size-fits-all strategy for social media, and we approach each channel with a unique strategy for engagement. Because of our intimacy with the platforms—our own team manages all of them and is constantly producing content, monitoring and engaging—we tend to get a quick pulse from our communities, and we can respond in turn. While our core always remains the same and we have an extraordinarily solid brand integrity and purpose, we express ourselves differently when talking on different channels. In the end, we love our fans more than they love us, and we’re trying to make the world a better place—so we try to use each platform to do just this.

Q: Which channels provide the most actionable customer feedback? 

A: It really depends on what we’re looking to act on. For instance, when we launch a new product such as the Non-Dairy line we launched in February, comments and direct messages via Twitter and Facebook give us a lot of insight into what other flavors fans wanted, what they thought about the product, if they were having trouble finding it, and many more actionable insights. And now we’re running a campaign in support of Voting Rights called Democracy Is In Your Hands, and our reach and engagement on Facebook is a great indicator of what content lands with fans; while our engaged time on our website of written and video content we produce gives us the greatest indicator of what content is most relevant. Alternatively, comments on Instagram tell us more about our style, tone, and creative approach. We gain less actionable insights from Snapchat, but we’re committed to being there and engaging with fans there, and are sure the analytics will follow as the platform matures.

Q: Any memorable social media blunders that became learning moments? 

A: One of the strengths of our team and our company is that we have a high tolerance for experimentation and are always looking to try and learn. It helps us achieve some of our greatest successes. And on the other hand, we have some flops. While I can’t recall any “blunders,” there have been less than stellar moments. The first time we tried Facebook Live, our WiFi connection dropped partway through. When we launched one of our new flavors this year, Empower Mint, it was raining and we had to do our Snap Story with soggy props and taking shelter in the back of an ice cream truck. It’s always an adventure, but the beauty is that we approach each success and “flop” with a spirit of learning, and figure out as a team what we can do differently next time and how we can continue to push the limits.

Q: Ben & Jerry's has effectively managed to stay the course of brand identity for nearly 40 years now. How do you guys manage to stay fresh and still true at the same time?

A: A big part of Ben & Jerry’s maintaining authenticity is our three-part Mission Statement and founding principles in which the business’ efforts are based. Our Social, Economic, and Product Missions are all equally supported, and not one is more important than the other; they’re all equally important. Everything from our non-GMO ingredient conversion to advocating for voters rights and marriage equality all funnel back to supporting the overall Mission Statement.
 
Q: What was the single biggest marketing challenge Ben & Jerry's has faced and overcome? 

A: Our biggest challenge is choosing where to dedicate our resources. Especially in digital marketing, we see so much potential in so many directions, and have to be judicious and strategic about where to invest and where to pull back. We have a largely “insourced” model, where we do much of the work ourselves instead of outsourcing to agencies. This makes us more nimble, more connected, and more authentic. However, it means that when we start doing something new, we need to decide where to prune— what we stop doing. This is always difficult when you’re passionate about your brand and the possibilities.

Q: Why does your company website include a Flavor Graveyard?

A: Our Flavor Graveyard was actually digital before it became a physical addition to our Waterbury Factory. The digital version started in 1995 as a fun and quirky way for B&J to say goodbye to our dearly departed flavors and offer fans a way to offer their condolences to their favorite flavors who RIP.  Given the popularity of the digital version, we welcomed our real-life Flavor Graveyard in 1997. Ever since, we’ve continued to add our retired flavors for fans to pay their respects.

Q: Describe the perfect ice cream sundae.

A: One that is filled with scoops of the best ingredients and euphoric goodness with a sprinkle of fun, a dollop of activism and a swirl of Fairtrade.

 

Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams

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Former baker and perfume mixologist Jeni Britton Bauer founded her ice cream company in 2002. Her mission then, as now, was to create ice cream in visionary flavors from real ingredients. Since opening the doors of her first scoop shop, Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams has been feted by such critics as Food & Wine and lauded by fans who can't get enough of such experimental flavor combinations as Sweet Corn and Black Raspberries, Pink Grapefruit Buttermillk Frozen Yogurt and Riesling Poached Pear Sorbet. She now boasts scoop shops in eight cities on both coasts, and the ice creamier is reaching fans by the pint in retail stores such as Fresh Market. Here, Jeni pulls back the curtain a bit to reveal the ice cream wizardry behind her success.

Q: Your 2012 cookbook Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home is a bestseller and James Beard Award winner. What kind of boost did it give your brand?

A: Well, I don't know if it gave us a boost exactly. It did help me understand that we had a broad fan base, often bringing out about 100 people in each city on book tour. My publisher had told me to expect low turnouts; even top chefs have events that no one shows up to. But it ended up being the exact opposite for all eight weeks of the tour. Already we were seeing copycat ice cream businesses start up on each coast, and the success of the book has only hastened that. I think we make ice cream look fun and easy. It is fun, but it's also an almost laughably brutal business (which is why I like it, of course).

Q: Did the follow-up, Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream Desserts, help capture a new audience segment, and if so, was that by design?

A: It helped us make a case for ice cream beyond the scoop shop. It's about using interesting ice creams as an accessory to very simple dessert staples at your dinner party or around your table. I always want my books to be truly useful to the audience for which they were intended. 

Q: Storytelling seems to be a strong component of your company's vendor relationships and outreach, i.e. the "Fellowship Model." What's the strategy there?

A: I see it two ways. Every other brand tells stories; we just try to share what we do, which is also a form of storytelling, but far more authentic. It's so incredibly complex to move tons of produce into ice cream. We are a community of people growing and making incredible 21st century ice cream. It's actually an impossible story to truly unpack. It can take the work of hundreds of people to bring one ice cream to life—what we refer to as the Fellowship Model (yes, it's a Lord of the Rings reference). Yet this is all very easy to fake. We've seen the rise of cheap knockoffs that look the part and tell stories, but they are still making what we think of as 20th century ice creams.

We put our money where our mouth is, too. It's way beyond storytelling. We are a certified B Corporation. We believe in transparency and accountability, and that we build a community wherever we go. 

These real stories help bring our customers deeper into the moment. And because these stories are real they actually impact the quality of our ice cream. It's indisputable that no one makes ice cream the way we do. And it shows in our flavors. 

Q: How has social media helped or hindered brand growth?

A: We've always grown our company as a community and social media helps us stay true to that. It's wildly fun to be able to communicate and inspire at all hours of the day. Entrepreneurship/business is a two-way conversation. I was doing this long before social media; it's all so much easier now. 

Additionally, as a company we want to combine the values of the artisanal world (community, quality, craftsmanship) with the tools of the 21st century (communication, transportation, safety). Social media is something we embraced from its origin. It helps keep us in contact with those in our sphere. 

 

Honeysuckle Gelato

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The brainchild of Jackson Smith, Wes Jones and Khatera Ballard, Honeysuckle Gelato started as a food truck spreading the gospel of Southern gelato and sorbets. An almost instant hit with hungry fans, Honeysuckle is rapidly growing; the brand opened its flagship shop in Atlanta's Ponce City Market in 2015 and offers pints via such online retailers as iGourmet. The three founders share a little bit of their vision for the future, as well as why they feel gelato is a star player in the ice cream stratosphere.

Q: Describe Honeysuckle's brand DNA in 25 words or less. 

A: Our tagline, “southern inspired gelato,” describes our craft, and the word “southern” reminds us to make flavors we love and serve the local community we’re in.

Q: What did you learn apprenticing with Jon Snyder (founder of il laboratorio del gelato) in NYC, both in terms of how to make a world-class product and in educating ice cream-obsessed Americans on the subtleties of the gelato experience?

A: Jon is a bit of a perfectionist in everything he does, and the fact that the product made at il laboratorio del gelato ends up in the finest kitchens in Manhattan only added to his exacting standards. I quickly learned that if you plan to make a world class gelato, there are no cutting corners. 

As to educating the public about gelato, there are a few technical differences. Gelato is churned colder and slower than typical ice cream, which allows you to use a lower percentage dairy fat, and creates smaller ice crystals which leads to a smoother mouthfeel. That said, we've found that the best way to spread the gelato gospel is by sample spoon. 

Q: What has been the most engaging media channel for getting the word out about Honeysuckle and tempting hard-core ice cream lovers to try something new (i.e., Facebook, website, blog, Instagram, newsletters, etc.)? 

A: We use Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for our business. Facebook and Instagram is where we engage with our customers the most. Instagram has been incredible given how visually appealing our gelato looks in pictures. You really don't need a caption at times as the product can speak for itself. It’s hard to scroll through your Instagram feed and not stop to look at a picture of gelato (or ice cream). Its also the type of product that can bring up great memories, express happiness or bring you up when you’re feeling a bit down. If we can get a tempting picture out there in front of the right person we hope it increases the chances they’ll stop by the shop to grab some. And one of the best things I love about Instagram is that we rarely need to use our own pictures. Our customers take AMAZING pictures and we love interacting with them and reposting their images as much as we can.

Q: What hurdles have been Honeysuckle's biggest market expansion challenges?

A: There are a lot of logistical challenges to operating a gelato wholesale business. Frozen products aren’t exactly the easiest to transport and ice cream has to be held at a lower temperature (-10 degrees Fahrenheit) than other frozen foods. In fact, most trucks that deliver frozen food don’t even bother with ice cream because it’s so temperamental. This has made expansion to stores outside of the metro Atlanta area a lot harder than we imagined, especially since we’re a smaller manufacturer and can’t make and ship entire truckloads at a time. Thankfully, we started working with a great new distributor, Perfect 10 Foods, last year, and the effort they make to help us build our brand has been an incredibly important part of the growth we’ve experienced over the last year.

Q: What does "Southern gelato" have that ice cream doesn’t?

A: Other than some of the technical differences mentioned above, it is important to point out that gelato is just like ice cream in that it does have dairy and, let's face it, people in the South love their dairy. Our “Southern-inspired gelato" was launched with the idea of combining the rich and smooth texture of gelato with the unique flavors and desserts of the South. Basically, we get to offer the best of both worlds. We create flavors like bourbon pecan, key lime pie, and blueberry cobbler while also making the American classics like chocolate and vanilla as well as the Italian classics like pistachio and hazelnut.

Q: Any sneak peeks on new flavors you want to share?

A: We just put out some new flavors over at our retail shop at Ponce City Market. We’re excited for our customers to try our wildflower honey, peach and sweet corn gelato flavors as well as our refreshing watermelon sorbet. The gelato sandwiches at our shop have been such a huge hit that we are looking to package those and make them available as a grab and go option at specialty food stores and grocery stores so that is something to look out for in the coming months. We’ll roll out with some of our best sellers and we’re working on our versions of some great “Southern” classics. The final list is still in the works which means we still have a lot of product testing in the near future to look forward to, and that makes me very happy.

FoodShaun Chavis