If you live in the US and have any interest in ice cream – or consume social media with any regularity (and the two seem to correlate) – then you will have heard about ‘Halo Top’. The premium ice cream’s low-calorie, ‘you can eat a pint’ goodness is all the rage and seems to make Ben & Jerry’s with its ‘Peace, Love & Ice Cream’ message look lame – and loose share.
Is this a case of product-benefit focus winning over the kind of purpose-led, myth-making and mission manifesting brand building we call ‘Ueber-Branding?’ After all, Halo Top puts the calorie count large and smack in the middle of their label and does not ‘clutter’ its packaging or posts with statements of any deeper meaning. No ‘Imagine Whirled Peace’, ‘Hubby Hubby’, ‘Yes Pecan!’ or other ‘double dip’ messaging (taste-good, do-good) à la Ben & Jerry’s, here. No ‘free cones for the 99%’ or the founders getting arrested for civil disobedience (again, in 2017!), either. In fact, Halo Top was founded by two lawyers – and not the civil-rights kind.
But no, Halo Top does not dis-prove the power of Ueber-Branding. – On the contrary. Several of the principles that drive Ueber-Brand success are reflected in the Halo Top story, to date. And we think that, if the brand wants to hold on to that love, premium price and business growth in the long-term, it needs to create the kind of deeper-seated relevance and meaning that Ben & Jerry’s has learned to keep, and refresh over the years – through ownership changes and external challenges like the current one from low-calorie offerings. Let us illustrate below how we come to this conclusion by comparing the ‘full pint’ Halo Top versus ‘double dip’ Ben & Jerry’s stories through the lens of what drives the success of ‘Ueber-Brands’: Having a Mission and Myth that matters to enough people (call it ‘having Soul‘), recognizing who your most fervent disciples are and keeping them engaged (the Ueber-Target) while making many more long to be like them (balancing Longing and Belonging) and doing all this with products and in ways that seductively authentic versus hard selling marketing (‘having a compelling Truth‘).
Double Dip Mission and Myth faces Full Pint Fill
Ben Cohen & Jerry Greenfield, two “under-achievers with counter-culture values” as Professors Page and Katz describe them (link below) started their eponymous ice cream brand and business in 1978 in an old Vermont gas station, after first trying their luck at finishing their studies, driving cabs and starting a bagels and newspaper business. Driven by a love of food, the two hippie friends took correspondence courses on making ice cream. Within 20 years they had made it into a multi-million-dollar publicly traded company that became the subject of a bidding war between food conglomerates, with Unilever taking away the grand prize in 2001 for US $326 million. Today the brand has sales of about $800 million (Euromonitor, 2017).
Of note is that Ben & Jerry’s value was not really meant to be measured in monetary terms by that time. Rather, the reason for being of the brand was “to see if it was possible to use the tools of business to repair society”. This had progressively and expressly become the core to the brand’s existence after Cohen realized that theirs was “just a business, like all others, [that] exploits its workers and the community” as Page and Katz recount in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Being reminded that they hold their own strings, he agreed with his partner and associates to put the usual business and organizational priorities on their head, which meant that commercial activities and financial results were seemingly relegated to a mere purpose-funding role. And that meant significant ‘teething problems’ once Unilever took over as we will see below.
The fact that the brand continues to report – front page of their website – about its founders being arrested on Capitol Hill for protesting against money in politics (in 2016, Ben did it again in 2018) shows, however, that the consumer goods giant has learned how critical living the purpose and maintaining the myth is to the continued success of the brand. Most other CPG groups, would have experienced such an ‘incident’ as a potential political and PR issue to be kept hush, at best, if not distanced themselves from the former owners.
Compare this brand background with that of Halo Top, founded by Justin Woolverton in ca. 2011. At that time, Justin could no longer stand either, all the sugar in ice creams – one of his favorite foods – which was giving him hypoglycemic episodes, as well as his job as a corporate lawyer job at a prestigious Los Angeles firm. We do not learn exactly what “disillusioned” him about that job from the many reports on the story but we do get to know that he shared that sentiment with ex-lawyer Doug Bouton who joined him because they both wanted to create something of their own, as he told Inc. magazine. And they certainly did. Halo Top has gone to almost $50 million in the first five years and is estimated to have exploded to just below $350 million in ice cream in year six (2017, Business Insider). It is the fastest growing ice cream, was crowned #1 pint sold in US grocery stores (July 2017, IRI). And, maybe most importantly, the brand seems to have built up a cult Instagram following expressed in over 700k+ followers, to date, and some 250k uses of its hashtag that translate to some 100+ direct interactions with its fans in a day – while not paying to promote the posts or otherwise investing in media, the founders say. That is comparable to the levels of Instagram interaction Ben & Jerry’s has accumulated over about the same time period (Instagram itself only being 8 years old!).
And what is this explosion in visual messaging all about? First and foremost about that eminently Instagram-able packaging, it seems and about adoring attestations to how great tasting and low-caloric/less-filling Halo Top is. This does not mean that Halo Top is only about looks, taste and calorie counts. In fact, the brand’s take-off can be related to the forever appealing myth around guilt-free indulgence, which the brand is associated with and which was kicked into high gear in early 2016 by Shane Snow, a ‘science reporter’ at GQ magazine who chronicled his consuming of just “magical healthy” Halo Top for 10 days – while loosing weight and enjoying it a lot. He is not the only one. Bloggers (like ‘spoon university’) and Halo Top fans from around the web since then outdo each other in “hauling in the Halo,” “indulging in a whole pint… or two” and praising there to be “no consequences”. If anything, they complaining about “…eating less Halo Top than I could or should.” The brand does not hold them back, expect for an ironic “stop when you hit the bottom” instruction printed inside the pack.
The question is if Halo Top can make ‘guiltless indulgence’ a distinctive and ‘deep’ enough platform for continued engagement as competitive offerings with matching calorie counts and taste profiles and reviews by nutritionists who tell us the obvious are closing in. We think that, having most communications center on a “Us versus Them” message focused on calories, protein, fat and sugar will not be enough to sustain the premium priced business over the long run. Take a look at the Ben & Jerry’s Facebook page, about three-quarters of the posts are about product, as well. But it is the socio-politically themed posts and discussion they trigger that are the differentiator – even after 40 years. Comments like “…thanks for reminding me why I buy only B&J’s – people that truly care about people” on a post about giving convicts a second chance. The same happens over at Magnum, which has extended its product focused ‘ice cream of pleasure’ platform over the years to become quite ‘intimate’ and more recently explicitly include the LGBT community – a free Pride bar in support of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, anyone? (Read our post on that campaign here). In both cases, the discussions between fans and non-believers can get quite heated. And the fans are passionate and plenty. On Facebook, Ben & Jerry and Magnum rule with over 8.7 and 12.6 million followers, beating the other brands like Hagen Daz, Halo Top or Breyers by a factor of 2 to 30. Note, also that those taste-focused brands have suffered disproportionate share losses to Halo Top, while Ben & Jerry’s and Magnum has been able to defend their turf with their shares unchanged to growing as of early 2018. Makes sense?
A Product to Behold?
No doubt Halo Top has a product that appeals to a lot of people. They seem to like the taste. And they rave about the guilt-free magic enabled by replacing plain sugar with nature-derived sweetener stivia and sugar alcohol erythvitol as well as fluffing the mass up* in the process (*there is about three-quarters of a cup of air in a pint of Halo Top which weighs about 260 gr, about 40% less than its premium competitors). But what it has more in air, it might make up in a higher concentration of protein (about +25%).
If that recipe sounds a bit questionable or like cheating to some (particularly traditional nutritionists), that in itself does not necessarily mean that Halo Top will become one of those ‘fads that was found out’ and disappears. Just think of perennially popular energy potion Red Bull and its controversial ‘Taurine’ ingredient. Is it a hallucinogenic? Is it harmful or addictive? Is it really ‘made of ground bull testicles’? … Parents and food regulators continue to worry while x-treme sports people or rave party goers alike continue to consume the syrupy stuff in large quantities. (Read our book for an in-depth case study on what drives the success of Red Bull).
The important question is if the ‘mystical potion’ that is Halo Top can be strongly associated with a higher purpose that makes the fans want to believe. In Red Bull’s case that is a believe in the stuff giving you somewhat super-human powers – ie ‘wings’. In the case of super-premium skin care cream La Mer, the ‘Magical Broth’ (trademarked!) let’s you hope for something closer to eternal youth … and in the case of Ben & Jerry’s, you not only get what tests and looks like a psychedelic mash-up of goodies whipped together by a bunch of eternal hippies. You also get to declare your liberal values and get to ‘do good to yourself and the the world’ – and that is worth the price and calorie count premium for those who pay attention and care.
Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia is quoted in a 2013 Fortune interview about why he associates his company with ecological causes and risks controversy as saying: ‘If you’re not pissing off 50 per cent of the people, you’re not trying hard enough’ (Mackenzie, 2013). Where most brands, especially mass brands, are concerned with being liked by everyone, Ueber-Brands do not shy away from provocation to attract. It’s hard to be seen as having a clear point-of-view if everybody agrees with it. If you’re vanilla well… you’re plain vanilla, not really worth paying a premium for. Yet that’s exactly what Ueber-Brands want and need: to evoke strong reactions, provoke loyalty way beyond reason and inspire a true fan base with exceptional commitment. And their product and services are premier vehicles to do that.
So it is no wonder, that ‘Vanilla’ is not one of Ben & Jerry’s hero flavors but rather its iconic hippie-tie-dye mixed flavors like ‘Karamel Sutra,’ ‘Hazed & Confused’ or ‘Americone Dream,’ which claims nothing short of “saving the world” on its label – the Stephen Colbert way, of course. And then there are flavors that take even more direct and controversial stands from ‘anti-war’ to ‘pro-gay marriage’ with names like ‘Hazed and Confused,’ ‘Hubby Hubby’ or ‘Yes Pecan,’ in support of the presidential candidacy of a certain Barack Obama. These are certainly polarizing and provocative dedications for the notoriously light-treading US culture. They express a particular world view, an ideology. They cement the Ben & Jerry’s mission and feed the myth.
No wonder, also, that Ben & Jerry’s would go out on a limb with quite a few of its flavors, fall over and then use the occasion to celebrate it as proof of its unique creed. Take ‘Fossil Fuel’ (b.2005) which disappeared in 2010 and “is not renewable” – as you can read on its tomb stone. Yes, there is a ‘Flavor Graveyard,’ just outside the plant in Vermont, where Ben & Jerry fans visiting can contemplate the tombs.
Note that the low calorie ‘Moo-Phoria’ variants launched by Ben & Jerry’s in 2018 come across as a defense against the Halo threat rather than a pro-active mission. But, the brand underlines that it is NOT using sugar substitutes, sugar alcohols or GMO ingredients and that its vanilla is fair trade sourced… of course.
And who are those ‘crazies’ who get in a car for some five hours and go on a pilgrimage to Ben & Jerry’s in rural Vermont? We call this kind of committed brand disciples – the Ueber-Target. They not only pay admission for the tour, they also pay close attention to the causes being by their consumption and join the brand in supporting them – often in protest and on the streets. They will be able to tell you (and anyone who looks like they might want to know) that the ‘American Pie’ flavor was created behind a goal of shifting the $13 billion and change that pay to keep up the US nuclear arsenal into pediatric health insurance, schools or other programs for kids – and who watch where the money goes. They – and most employees – are the ones who talk and tweet and blog about the brand and its causes, who propose new flavors … who don’t just buy an ice cream bust consciously buy INTO a social dream that goes way beyond the sugary indulgence. And while most of the rest of us (the ‘Strategic Target’ who actually generate most of the sales) just ‘sense’ something uniquely fun and engaging about the product and the expression at the shelf or in their scoop shops – it is those Ueber-Target that ensure the stays engaging, consistent and ‘true to itself.‘
Who might be Halo Top’s Ueber-Target? Right now the health and fitness oriented communities see to be particularly excited and vocal about how much they love Halo Top. Besides Instagramming themselves eating a whole pint – or even covered in them in a bath tub – they laud the higher protein contend and rave about a life of fitness (with lots of muscle built), and indulgence (without the belly) now being possible. If and how Halo Top will embrace this community beyond the like and re-post and in the long run is not clear, yet.
Living a compelling Truth
Beyond the product on the supermarket shelves and in social media, Halo Top has started to manifest itself more broadly by opening scoop shops in late 2017 (three in the LA area, so far). They are as slick-looking as the pints and offer picture-perfect, yum and creative ways to indulge in the cream and a variety of toppings. — But we are missing manifestations of the brand that go beyond this surface.
Many retail food brands have recently gone the shop and pop-up route. In New York, for example, you can choose from the pop-colorful Kellogg’s Cereal café – complete with ‘Instagram Station’ – at Union Square to the more hip, Mediterranean food-themed Chobani Cafe in Soho – not to mention the half-dozen Ben & Jerry’s scoop shops. What differentiates those last two brands from the previous two is that Chobani and Ben & Jerry’s are keen to have their physical manifestations and actions to go deeper in conveying that higher brand mission and myth we talked about above.
Their believe statements are spelled out in large letters in the store. In the Chobani Cafe we read about foods needing to be “simple and natural” and those interested are pointed to more information on the menu, in brochures and with online links that explain the brand’s efforts to “take on the Big Guys,” which includes helping startups create “honest and accessible foods.” Chobani does this through grants to start-ups and an Incubator around the corner and at their plant. But the scope and ‘activation’ go further. Chobani talks about wanting to help change the “food culture” more broadly – how it is made and consumed. And also by whom it is made – and that should include recent immigrants, refugees (like the brand’s founder) and other people in dire need for worker jobs. Which, in term, is reflected in the composition of the brands employees (some 30% have refugee background) and their actions (lobbying for food, worker compensation and immigration reform). Read our Chobani case study for a more in-depth brand review.
This younger, work-in-progress Chobani example illustrates how a brand can create compelling, Ueber-Target-attracting ‘Truths’ that ‘authenticate’ the brand through diverse but consistent expressions of its convictions. “They put their money where their mouth is” is the expression. We would add “their organization, shop, plant, supply chain…” or other element of the brands existence that is relevant to express its unique meaning.
This is not easy. Particularly if the brand purpose is ambitious and as the business and business scales and even changes ownership, as in the case of Ben & Jerry.
The challenge with the acquisition of Ben & Jerry’s by Unilever in 2001 was that the brand’s myth and success were always built against traditional economics, not in synch with them. Beyond creating great ice cream, they wanted their company to be a fun and equitable place to work that would help further social equality and peace in its community, the nation and the world. And that ‘second dip’ made the profit line dip into the red more than once.
So when Unilever took over, they felt compelled to straighten out the economics. Judging by all reports they were quite respectful towards the company’s social agenda, yet they invariably ran into some touchy topics – most famously the discontinuation of the iconic but unprofitable product ‘Wavy Gravy’, an homage to the entertainer-activist of the same name. The biggest issue, though, wasn’t any major blow to the company’s ethos, spirit or operational eccentrics; it was the gradual erosion of its culture. Bit by bit, spoon by spoon, the crazy-curly-counter-cultural vibe turned corporate, simply by introducing minor – and by themselves sensible – processes like asking for pre-approval of cause donations for instance. The mood soured and employee morale as well as business went down, until in 2006 Walter Freese became CEO and managed to lure the company’s founders back ‘on board’ with the aforementioned ‘American Pie’ initiative. Freese told NBC News at the time: “There was always the commitment… to honor the social mission. [But] Ben & Jerry’s was less courageous for a time, post-acquisition.”
Since then the company has slowly regained the grassroots feel. It probably helped that many big businesses have begun to acknowledge the importance of a fundamental shift, like current CEO Jostein Solheim does: “The world needs dramatic change to address the social and environmental challenges we are facing. Historically, this company has been and must continue to be a pioneer to continually challenge how business can be a force for good and address inequities inherent in global business” he told Food Processing magazine in 2014.
Today, Ben & Jerry’s is back uniting delicious ice cream and social vision in the form of their foundation, their ‘partnershops’ and supporting thousands of activities from the Occupy movement to the US Institute of Peace. Different from the Unilever mothership, they don’t use milk containing growth hormones and try to avoid big, paid media. One thing they did give up though is their original ‘David against Goliath’ sentiment. In fact, Halo Top and other ice creams can/have taken over that place. But that’s the price of growth and corporate take-overs. Overall they still – or again – live their dream in full force and with flying colors, feisty and fervent, inside and out.
The moral: If you want to build-up and sustain a position at the top – in price and consideration. Above and beyond the ‘popular but generic’ market offerings. Then you must build your brand on a mission. And in today’s social media transparent world you need to stay true to that mission. In the book ‘Ben & Jerry’s – The Inside Scoop’ Ben is quoted as saying: “It’s not a question of making great ice cream, making some money and then going and doing socially responsible things. Caring about the community has to be imbued throughout the organization so that it impacts every decision we make.”
Ueber-Brands must take their mission to heart and translate it into a myth by celebrating it in many unique ways, even if they are polarizing, and make sure that nothing undermines this core dynamic. Ben & Jerry’s has succeeded to do so – with occasional challenges – and stayed on top – ‘ueber’ – for 40+ years. Every business needs to grow and make money, but Ueber-Brands also need to make sense, and radiate this sense, unbridled and un-compromised, from the inside out. – Halo Top is still a ‘brand teenager’ in that sense, figuring that sense out for itself and its Ueber-Target… we hope.
For a more holistic analysis of what drives the success of Ben & Jerry’s and many other Ueber-Brands, read our book “Rethinking Prestige Branding – Secrets of the Ueber-Brands” and other articles and case studies on this blog.
Here is is the article about “The Truth about Ben & Jerry’s” – at least from a social innovation point-of-view by professors Page and Katz. For some recent activism, read on the brand’s website about why Ben & Jerry’s got (or rather keep being) arrested. Contrast that with this article by Burt Helm at Inc. sharing the Halo Top creation story and ‘air infused’ myth. He thinks Halo Top will be able to feed the calories cult and avoid following now-defunct fads like ‘Skinny Cow’ or ‘Simple Pleasures’. This is the Shane Snow 10 day Halo Top diary in GQ magazine online that is associated with kicking Halo Tops growth into high gear.
Here is an article on Ben & Jerry’s low calorie product response to Halo Top: “140 Calories per half-cup! They are ‘moo-phoric’.” Will it all land on the B&J ‘Flavor Graveyard‘ as having been a fad in a few years? Worse, will it go into the B&J annals as having made it stray from its purpose and chase business over purpose?
Both, Halo Top and Ben & Jerry’s have their critics. Nutritionists accuse Halo Top of misguiding consumers about the healthiness of its ice cream – eating a lot more of ‘less fat’ isn’t healthy, they say (read more about that here). Ben & Jerry’s recently faces criticism of violating its ‘doing good while doing business’ and ‘values-led sourcing’ mission when it comes to ‘Caring Dairy’. As the Bangor Daily News reports, that the Organic Consumers association suing the brand for misleading consumers and points to barn-raised cows and traces of pesticides in its ice cream. The difference between the two brands might be in how much and how thoughtfully Ben & Jerry’s engages in challenges around it’s mission. In fact, the brand does not wait to be ‘found out.’ In this article for Stanford Social Innovation review, CEO Jostein Solheim talks about how clueless ‘mostly vanilla’ Ben & Jerry’s has been about race and is addressing this now – pro-actively. Here is a sampling from the front pages of their website: “How White Privilege made Ben & Jerry’s possible.” Such actions put Trust and Truth points (back) into the brands equity account. Halo Tops answer? A dystopian ad about humans only being fed Halo Top. Provocative? Yes. Revealing an inner truth that an influential segment of the population will rally around and carry forward? You be the judge.
In the meantime, Unilever’s Magnum brand is also doing well in the current ice cream market. That brand, on the other hand, has rather boosted what it means to ‘follow your pleasures’ beyond the material and counting calories. More on that in our article here. Magnum’s new, fast selling pints are a hefty 1000+ calories per container. But who cares when you ‘crack the hard chocolate skin to get to the cream’.
A Sample of Ben & Jerry’s Activism (ca 2013-2017)
- Support for a Constitutional amendment that would limit corporate spending in elections.
- Support for stronger social and environmental protections in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.
- Support for the Youth PROMISE Act, which funds proven youth violence prevention programs.
- Support for continued funding for the United States Institute of Peace.
- Support for continued funding for the Complex Crises Fund which supports State Department emergency efforts to defuse volatile conflicts around the globe.
- Support for aggressive federal legislation to limit and reduce carbon emissions to respond to the challenge of climate change.
- Opposition to FDA approval of foods from cloned animals.
- Support for a USDA program to require mandatory tracking of cloned animals in the food supply to support consumer choice.
- Opposition to FDA approval of genetically engineered animals in the food supply.
- Support for the right of dairy companies to label their products as being ‘rBGH-free.’
- Support for the United Nations Millennium Development goals to eradicate extreme poverty and inequality.
Being considered lobbying activities, Ben & Jerry’s reports the expenditures on these grassroots campaign activities as required by Federal and Vermont state law.