Freezing Points
by Lynn Petrak
Better-for-you and decadent ice cream products continue on parallel growth tracks as the category churns ahead.
“Ice cream is exquisite. What a pity it isn’t illegal.” Voltaire
There has always been something about ice cream, a certain undeniable appeal that has caused philosophers to wax eloquent and continually drives consumers to the freezer.
The fact that so many people have found ice cream irresistible is underscored in today’s marketplace, at which the quotable observers of the past would undoubtedly marvel. In the retail freezer, perennially popular vanilla and chocolate flavors are squeezed by scores of other varieties, from super-indulgent flavors to an increasingly splintered series of better-for-you options.
Indeed, this is a category that subtly but notably evolves every year. Over the past 12 months, manufacturers have invested in a host of new product introductions, format innovations, packaging changes and processing improvements. Even if sales indicate a certain ebb and flow, the fact that change and growth is ongoing is a testament to a hungry, if discriminating, audience.
The Hard Facts
According to ice cream expert and author Malcolm Stogo, president of Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.-based Malcolm Stogo Associates, the category remains promising. “Ice cream is doing well. Basically, we had a fabulous summer last year,” he reports, adding that there is potential beyond the U.S. border. “There is growth of the industry worldwide. In Asia, for instance, it’s growing leaps and bounds.”
In this country, a review of recent market research shows that there are both hot and cold trends within the ice cream sector. According to information recently released by the Washington, D.C.-based International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) and compiled by Chicago-based Information Resources Inc. (IRI), total retail volume of ice cream was down 2 percent during the first half of 2005 (before the summer season).
Another IRI scan found ice cream and sherbet sales declined 0.3 percent from November 2004 to November 2005, while novelties dropped one percentage point. That follows data published by IDFA in its 2005 Dairy Facts showing that per capita consumption of frozen dessert fell from 27.1 quarts in 2003 to 26.4 quarts in 2004.
That said, there is heartening news. As IDFA notes in Dairy Facts, more than 90 percent of American households purchase ice cream, and the annual market value of the frozen desserts industry stands at more than $21 billion. Meanwhile, within the ice cream segment of the overall ice cream/sherbet group, sales actually rose 0.2 percent. Reduced-fat ice cream, meanwhile, rose 13.8 percent in sales from January to June 2005, according to IDFA.
On the production side of the business, there have been modest gains. IDFA reports total frozen dairy output in the second quarter of 2005 increased 3.1 percent.
Companies that produce ice cream have had their own ups and downs over the past year. At the top of the category, the U.K.-based Unilever and Oakland, Calif.-based Dreyer’s Ice Cream Holdings Inc. continue to duke it out as the giants of the industry, after joining forces with several leading brands over the past decade, from Ben & Jerry’s and Breyers to Häagen-Dazs and Nestlé, respectively.
At Dreyer’s, net sales for the third quarter of 2005 increased 16 percent from the comparable quarter in 2004. Unilever, meanwhile, reported “good quality underlying sales growth” of 3.5 percent in the third quarter of 2005.
Another major player in the category is Blue Bell Creameries, Brenham, Texas. “We had a very good year in sales,” says company spokesman Bill Weiss. “According to a recent A.C. Nielsen report, we are still the number-three branded ice cream in the nation, with only 20 percent distribution.”
Stogo says now that the consolidation trend has stabilized, the influence of mid-size and smaller players may be felt. “Probably in the next couple years I think you’ll see another turnaround in what I call small dairies ‘opening up’,” he predicts. To that point, there are more than 500 ice cream manufacturers in this country, not counting independent scoop shops with homemade ice creams, according to the book Everyone Loves Ice Cream (Emmis Publishing, 2004).
Better Gets Better
Ice cream makers continue to churn out a plethora of new products. As in the past few years, product development seems to be concurrently (and perhaps ironically) hinging on both indulgent and better-for-you (BFY) varieties.
The BFY segment remains one to watch, both for the increased number of offerings and statistics showing consumers are willing to shell out more for such items. As Stogo points out, though, the ultimate success of BFY depends on what has always fueled ice cream sales: taste. “I think better for you ultimately will do better because technology is making it better,” he says.
Diane McIntyre, Dreyer’s public relations manager, recently gauged trends via the company’s brand managers and reports back that taste is indeed a critical factor in this arena. “Most importantly, taste is very important in better-for-you products, since several manufacturers have introduced products that have raised the bar in that regard,” she says.
Other manufacturers note that the BFY market is becoming increasingly competitive. “While full-fat ice cream still makes up 75 percent of the category, the growth has been in the better-for-you segments — specifically light and no sugar added,” says Adam Baumgartner, marketing manager of better-for-you products for LeMars, Iowa-based Wells’ Dairy Inc., which manufactures the Blue Bunny® line of ice cream products.
To Baumgartner’s point, there has been a resurgence of light ice creams, which first hit the market in the late 1980s. There are differences, however, between those products and today’s versions. Blue Bunny’s Premium Light ice cream, for instance, contains half the fat of regular ice cream but in more premium-style flavors like Super Fudge Brownie and Bunny Tracks.
“As consumers have taken more of a moderation approach to dieting and eating better, ‘light’ is an obvious choice to fill their needs,” Baumgartner says.
There are other examples of light ice creams with a premium flair. In its quarterly earnings report, Dreyer’s noted that its recent sales boom was due in part to strong introductory sales of superpremium Häagen-Dazs Light ice cream, including Cherry Fudge Truffle, Dulce de Leche and others.
Unilever’s Breyers brand last year introduced new All Natural Light packaged ice creams in Creamy Vanilla, Creamy Chocolate, Butter Pecan and Rocky Road varieties and several new All Natural Light ice cream bars.
Meanwhile, light ice creams have been tweaked in other ways to help distinguish them from the products of the past. One successful example is Dreyer’s/Edy’s Slow Churned™ Light line. Made with a proprietary blending technique, it offers 26 flavors and has climbed dramatically in sales in recent months.
Stogo says Slow Churned Light has made an impressive start. “I think they are really onto something and it’s forced everyone to sit down and think about it,” he says.
Pierre’s French Ice Cream Co., Cleveland, has its own take on the concept. In September, the company introduced Pierre’s Smooth Churned Light Ice Cream, with half the fat and 30 percent fewer calories than full-fat ice cream. “The combination of ingredients, along with lower freezing temperatures, allows us to create a unique product that has very minimal ice crystallization,” says plant manager John Gaughan. “This special process creates an extra creamy, smooth mouthfeel in a light ice cream comparable in taste and texture to full-fat premium ice cream.”
Pierre’s spokes-woman Laura Hindulak adds that the Smooth Churned group represents the right product at the right time for consumers’ moderate diets. “We think great tasting, better-for-you products are here to stay,” she says.
Beyond the more general light subcategory, no-sugar-added (NSA) products are finding a steady niche. “I think sugar replacement is the big issue and that is where the growth is. And it will be for a long time,” Stogo says.
Dreyer’s Slow Churned line has spawned a Slow Churned No Sugar Added group, including Cookie Dough, Fudge Tracks, Triple Chocolate Chip and other flavors. McIntyre says her in-house sources underscore the fact that current clamor for NSA options is real, but offer some caution. “No-sugar-added products are gaining in importance for today’s consumers, but manufacturers should be careful not to saturate the market too quickly,” she says.
It may not be saturated at this point, but the freezer space for NSA products is getting a bit crowded. Breyers, which has a separate Smart Eating line that includes All Natural Light, CarbSmart™, HeartSmart™ and CalSmart™, recently unveiled an NSA series, including Triple Chocolate, Peanut Butter Tracks, Vanilla, French Vanilla, Butter Pecan, Vanilla-Chocolate-Strawberry packaged ice creams and Creamy Vanilla Bars and Krunch Bars.
Pierre’s, which got into the NSA segment back in 2002 with its Slender® NSA/reduced-fat packaged ice cream, recently developed several new NSA ice cream novelties, including sundae cones, sandwiches and bars, all sweetened with Splenda®.
Where does the spate of light and NSA varieties leave low-carb ice cream, the darling of 2003? Despite the general slowdown of low-carb diets, manufacturers have held on to some of their low-carb products. Breyers, for instance, has added to its CarbSmart line with two bars and two new rice creams.
Baumgartner also indicates low-carb is holding its own. “Even though the carbohydrate-counting craze has certainly waned, the best low-carb products will continue to maintain shelf space and meet the needs of those consumers,” he says. “Products like Blue Bunny’s Carb Freedom Almond Bar, Butter Pecan Bar and Candy Bar have been proven winners, even in the low-carb decline.”
And although organic ice cream spans many different flavors, it too can be considered part of the BFY movement. For example, Ben & Jerry’s offer a line of products made from certified organic ingredients, including Vanilla, Chocolate Fudge Brownie, Strawberry and Sweet Cream & Cookies.
Dishing Out Decadence
While the BFY segment is quite active, there also has been strong movement in indulgent flavors. Manufacturers are taking indulgence a step further, with more mix-ins and often partnering with other brands.
Breyers, for instance, recently developed Sara Lee® Strawberry Cheesecake All Natural ice cream, along with  Brownie Mud Pie, All That and Caramel, Tin Roof Sundae, Chocolate Overload, Banana Bonanza and Peanut Butter Tracks.
Minneapolis neighbors Kemps and General Mills’ Pillsbury last year teamed up for a new line of bakery-inspired Pillsbury Ice Cream, with flavors Fudge Brownie, Peanut Butter Fudge Chunk and Cake & Ice Cream. Longtime champions of the creative mix-in concept, Ben & Jerry’s last year rolled out ooey-gooey flavors like Marsha Marsha Marshmallow™ and the Gobfather™.
Blue Bell is keeping busy on innovative ingredient additions, too. “Our bread and butter, so to speak, still consists of standard, full-bodied ice cream. Therefore, our focus has been on those types of ice cream flavors that appeal to our consumers,” says Weiss, citing 2005 ice cream introductions including Sundae’s Best, Peanut Butter & Jelly and Butterscotch Nut. “We plan to add approximately eight new flavors in 2006. Our newest flavors include Hot Chocolate and Chocolate Brownie Overload.”
The Dove® brand from Mars Inc. is also trying to crack into the decadence segment. Launched broadly in 2005, the print line includes profiles like Unconditional Chocolate, Cappuccino Chocolate Thrill, Vanilla with a Chocolate Soul, Chocolate and Brownie Affair, Toffee Caramel Moment and Give Into Mint, with ice cream covered by a layer of dark chocolate.
Meanwhile, Stogo has decided to get into the marketplace himself to capitalize on the burgeoning demand for unique, indulgent flavors. This spring, he plans on introducing Malcolm’s ice cream in flavors like Chocolate Zinfandel, New Orleans Praline, Bolognese Pistachio and Filipino Mango, along with kids’ ice creams like Cookies, Cookies and More and sorbets like French Chocolate and Tequila Sunrise.
“It is artisan handcrafted ice cream, and we didn’t spare any expense,” Stogo says of the ice cream that will be available online, packaged in Italian-style liters and half liters.
Ethnically-inspired ice creams remain another area of activity. Latin ice creams are the most prominent example, with some Asian flavors like green tea emerging as well. Blue Bell introduced a new monthly flavor called Buñuelos, comprising creamy cinnamon ice cream with crispy cinnamon and sugar coated pastry pieces and a praline cinnamon sauce swirl.
“With the percentage of Latin Americans continuing to increase in our markets, we expect those types of flavors to remain popular.  In fact, one of our new flavors planned for 2006 will be a Southwest flavor,” says Weiss, adding that the company also expects to continue to develop region-specific flavors like its Louisiana and Mississippi-targeted King Cake.
Selling it Cold
Creating new products is one way to inject excitement in the category. Manufacturers can also change — subtly or boldly — the way their products are merchandised.
For packaged ice cream, most packaging changes over the past few years have centered on the move to more scround containers and to different volume sizes.
Wells’ Dairy, meanwhile, is ready to roll out a new 56-ounce plastic container for Blue Bunny packaged ice cream early this year. “The new elliptical container features several improvements over the round cardboard container we have used for several decades,” says Jim Rossiter, director of brand strategy and retail marketing, citing features like a FreshLock™ seal and a reusable, tamper-evident carton.
Likewise, packaging is becoming more non-traditional for novelties and single-serve portions. The Dreyer’s Dibs™ line of bite-sized chocolate coated ice creams is sold in bright-red plastic resealable containers with high- impact graphics.
Wells, too, has taken a fresh look at the delivery of single-serve and novelty items. “We are trying to provide consumers with quick, easy and delicious products. An example would be our new Bite Sized miniature ice cream candy bars. These new treats are perfect for on-the-go people that just want to grab a quick bite and go,” explains Jason Glover, marketing manager for indulgent and kid brands.
“Consumers are tired of the ‘one size fits all’ mentality and looking for products which they feel are designed just for themselves. A great example of this is the new Blue Bunny Personal Packaged Ice Cream,” he says, suggesting the 8-ounce carton is an ideal serving for one person.
Finally, as proof this category is hardly going to the dogs, at least one brand has recognized the potential of the canine connoisseur. Frosty Paws® Frozen Treats for Dogs have been on the market for several years, but manufacturer Dreyer’s recently added to the line with a new non-dairy frozen dessert in a Peanut Butter flavor. The product is designed to be taken out of the provided cup and placed in a dog’s bowl.  
Lynn Petrak is a freelance journalist based in the Chicago area.