The Quirky Evolution of the Ice Cream Pint

In the world of CPG food, ice cream stands apart as a category flush with innovation. Previously, we covered how Halo Top helped to launch a major design trend that is popping up across a range of different categories. This favorite brand of suburban mothers and muscleheads alike has also recently debuted a range of quirky, mouth-watering flavors, including “mochi green tea” and “pancakes & waffles”.

Once upon a time, such flavors would have caused a stir among shoppers, used to simpler and more easily-conceived concoctions. Today, it’s expected that an ice cream brand is going to have a few “weirder” flavors in their line, and the perception of many is that only lower-tier brands stick to more basic, “child-friendly” flavors. Having innovative, unusual flavors is now a core aspect of the brand identity of many successful ice cream manufacturers.Other kinds of snacks typically don’t have these expectations. A popcorn brand would seem pretty far out for releasing a flavor like “black sesame ash”, which is one of the “classic” flavors from Pentagram-designed Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream.

How did the category get here?

It really all goes back to Ben & Jerry’s. Their first major ice cream innovation was their use of heavy, chunky mix-ins, which were intended to improve the mouthfeel of the treat. This was instrumental in their initial campaign to win over consumers.

The men then introduced more of their trademark folksy charm into the brand, inspired by the ice cream’s Vermont roots. They began developing and naming flavors after pop culture icons, such as “Cherry Garcia” (named for the lead guitarist in the Grateful Dead) and “Americone Dream” (inspired by the on-camera persona of comedian Stephen Colbert). Just a year ago this July, Ben & Jerry’s released “Freezer Reprise”, a chocolate donut-flavored homage to the brand’s favorite band, Phish. A few months prior to that the brand released “One Love”, a banana-flavored, Bob Marley-inspired pint.The key is that Ben & Jerry’s flavors are silly but still rich and decadent, and their names and package design are whimsical without seeming immature or cringe-y. These factors combined have built a common brand perception that Ben & Jerry’s is high-quality but approachable, decadent but fun. It’s the identity of early Apple – doing big things in a chill way. Thanks to Ben & Jerry’s, consumers want more than just flavor from their ice cream brands – they want personality.

Now we get to live in a world where ice cream brand Coolhaus sells pints in quirky flavors like “Milkshake and Fries” and “Balsamic Fig & Mascarpone,” and at their scoop shop, they serve up “Netflix” ice cream, which has a white cheddar popcorn base mixed with crushed Doritos. San Francisco-based Humphry Slocombe is now on shelves at Whole Foods, with intriguing flavors like Hong Kong Milk Tea and Secret Breakfast, which consists of bourbon ice cream swirled with cornflake cookies.The real question is that with all of these options populating the freezer section, have we reached peak whimsy? These brands have all done very well so far, but how unique will their competitors have to get with their flavor options before customers decide that they won’t fork over the money for something that has a 50/50 chance of being either genius or disgusting? And how well will these increasingly novel flavors lend themselves to repeat purchases?

Packaged ice cream is a notoriously difficult and cutthroat category. For brands to keep up, we see them taking one of two routes.

The first choice is for brands to keep getting weirder, but relegating their wildest offerings to limited promotions, as other categories do with their strange flavors. This is the direction that Oreo has taken, releasing a new novelty flavor every couple of weeks. Lay’s has taken a similar approach with their “Do Us A Flavor” contest and subsequent spinoff campaigns, putting out limited batches of fan-generated potato chip flavors like “Cappuccino” and “Brazilian Picanha”.

The second option would be to scale back on the exotic flavors and instead invest more heavily in package design. Even though Halo Top could not resist the pull of unique flavor options, what ultimately catapulted them into stardom was their massively successful package redesign. The simplified font and dramatic calorie callout immediately signal to shoppers what the product is and why they should buy it, something that brands which push for zanier flavors may struggle with.

We’ll just have to watch and see where it goes. For as competitive as the category can be, it can also be unpredictable. Few people saw Halo Top taking such a big bite out of Ben & Jerry’s market, yet it continues to pull off massive sales. As the summer ticks on, we may soon learn which way consumer preferences are leaning. In the meantime, doesn’t a scoop of malt ball and french fry ice cream sound really good right now?

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