What makes a consumer want to buy a cone of ice cream, a cup of gelato or even a scoop of frozen yogurt? Many can argue it’s a desire for something sweet, something to indulge in. But not everyone’s idea of indulging is the same. Some want a tasty option, but not a fattening one; some don’t care about calories or fat and really just want to dig their teeth into a really decadent, flavorful treat.

So how does an ice cream or frozen dessert maker market to such a diverse crowd? By focusing on flavor. That’s what several of the processors we spoke with agree on. But achieving this can be difficult with a market that’s so saturated. Both ice cream and frozen yogurt are struggling as they compete with a slew of other dessert options on the market (like frozen pies, frozen novelties and even dessert yogurts). Competing means coming up with the new “new” or the most innovative flavors that will make consumers feel they are enjoying something special, something unique. 

Numbers paint a picture

Sales of ice cream and frozen yogurt are struggling. The ice cream segment saw sales increase just 1.4% to $5.6 billion (with units also up 1.4% to 1.5 billion), according to data from Information Resources Inc. (IRI), Chicago for  the 52 weeks ended May 18, 2014, Meanwhile, the frozen yogurt segment saw dollar sales drop 1.7% to $344.1 million, and units down 2.7% to 94.1 million.

Frozen yogurt has taken a hit recently, according to Bud Gunter, part owner of Sugar Creek Foods, Russellville, Ark., which produces private-label frozen yogurt and its national brand Honey Hill Farmssoft-serve frozen yogurt. He said his company knew there would be a slowdown in frozen yogurt sales this year as the newness of self-serve frozen yogurt was over. 

“We believe you must diversify to grow,” he said. This is why many of Sugar Creek Foods’ customers are dropping the self-serve frozen yogurt shop theme and replacing it with “self-serve frozen dessert shop or self-serve frozen treat shop,” said Gunter.

In addition to frozen yogurt mix, these shops are now buying  soft-serve custard, soft-serve gelato,  Italian ice and Sugar Creek Foods’ soft-serve gelati (a combination of vanilla custard twisted with Italian ice), all supplied by Honey Hill and new to its lineup this year. As Gunter put it, it re-focuses on indulgence and it’s a way for the shops to “tap into all.”  In total, Sugar Creek added 23 new flavors across these new soft-serve formats.

Gunter added that the trend he’s been seeing for frozen desserts and frozen yogurts involves the sweet and savory, heavy on indulgence (or dessert-inspired flavors) and shock flavors (like sweet-and-tart combinations).

Outside-the-box flavors

Flavor is a key factor for many consumers when they enter a grocery store looking for a frozen dessert.  In a report from Chicago-based Mintel, the majority of consumers (78%) say flavor is an important factor in their purchase decision. And despite American consumers’ love of vanilla and chocolate, processors are looking beyond these flavors, as outside-the-box flavors are quickly gaining interest.

Makers of ice cream, gelato and frozen dessert are releasing unique or dessert-inspired flavors and combinations to grab attention and tap into this overall desire for something new. Flavors like dark chocolate truffle, tiramisu, limoncello and sea salt caramel are some of what’s showing up on grocery shelves.

Though 73% of both men and women say vanilla is still their most appealing flavor for gelato and ice cream, according to a 2013 U.S. Flavor Consumer Trend Report from Chicago-based Technomic Inc., other less typical flavors are gaining ground. The cheesecake flavor was named among 57% of women and 44% of men, and cookie dough among 54% of women and 48% of men.

In the same report, and on the frozen yogurt side, strawberry was the number one flavor with 71% of women and 54% of men choosing this flavor as their most appealing. Peach came in second with 61% of women and 48% of men, while vanilla came up in third place with 59% of women and 45% of men.

In Dairy Foods’ 2013 Ingredients Study, ice cream processors said the top five flavors they plan on using are strawberry (82%), mango (64%), raspberry (59%), banana (57%) and cherry (56%).

Nick Soukas, director of ice cream at Englewood Cliffs, N.J.-based Unilever said the feedback they’ve received shows a desire for something different. 

“Consumers’ tastes are really expanding... [They] are enjoying more adventurously flavored frozen treats instead of more traditional flavor profiles, like vanilla or strawberry,” said Soukas.

Gelato seems especially receptive to unconventional flavors, more so than ice cream. “You can take risks in gelato that you won’t with ice cream,” said Cynthia Harrison, the director of business development for G.S. Gelato, Fort Walton Beach, Fla.

G.S. Gelato continues to see a trend toward dessert-inspired flavors for ice cream, gelato and frozen novelties, according to Simona Faroni, CFO and co-owner of G.S. Gelato.

“Common dessert flavors like raspberry cheesecake and brownie swirl are a market staple. However, the trend continues to evolve into more unique flavors including: bananas foster, s’mores, chocolate coconut macaroon and crème brulé,” said Faroni. “American consumers [also] love toppings… with an increasing interest in nuts, fruits, and cookie pieces and swirls and revels to enhance indulgence.”

This year G.S. Gelato introduced a variety of dessert-like flavors to its line, including bananas foster, Mexican hot chocolate, Italian mint kiss, Italian wedding cake, chocolate coconut macaroon, spiced pumpkin, Amarena cherry, lemon meringue and caramel apple crumble. It also created new alcohol-inspired flavors — chocolate martini and blood orange mimosa.

When it comes to flavor creation, processors look at a variety of categories and industries for inspiration.  Desserts and bakery items are the most obvious source of inspiration, said Eva Balazs, director of marketing for Perry’s Ice Cream, Akron, N.Y. “But we also look at confectionary items, cookies and refrigerated yogurts.”

Others look to the beverage industry for ideas.

“The cocktail and beverage industry is an invaluable inspiration for us when it comes to creating new and innovative flavors,” said Faroni. “From traditional Italian flavors like limoncello to the modern flavors like the martini, liquor and spirits have inspired a wide variety of indulgences. Gelato is constantly evolving within the cocktail and beverage market.”

Amanda Klane, co-founder of Boston-based Yasso, makers of frozen Greek yogurt bars, said that when it comes to flavor inspiration, they look at food trends as a whole.

“We don’t think there is one category over another that drives trends. It is important to look at candy, salted snacks, refrigerated yogurt as well as beverages to help us make educated new product decisions,” Klane said.

She added that sea salt caramel (one of its newest flavors) is a good example of this.

“Five or 10 years ago, this flavor profile had little awareness, and now the flavor has made its way in to multiple categories in the grocery store and has quickly become a hit with consumers.”

Variety and innovation is key

Yasso, which is owned by Apollo Food Group LLC, almost doubled its offerings this year by adding five ice cream-inspired flavors. Along with sea salt caramel, the new flavors are mint chocolate chip, chocolate fudge, peanut butter cup and dark chocolate raspberry.  The focus with the new flavors was to dip into the indulgent category, but still have a healthier option, said Klane. Yasso’s frozen Greek yogurt bars contain 110 calories, 4.5 grams of fat and 11 grams of sugar per bar, compared to twice that found in a typical ice cream bar.

She noted that the new flavors are performing extremely well in the market, with the mint chocolate chip and sea salt caramel quickly becoming Yasso’s top-selling items in 2014.   

Unilever’s Breyers expanded its line with its new Gelato Indulgence released earlier this year. The new frozen dessert is packaged in eye-catching clear 28.5-ounce tubs in order to show off the gelato, sauce and toppings, much like a presentation in a gelateria. And it comes in four dessert-inspired flavors: vanilla caramel, raspberry cheesecake, tiramisu and triple chocolate.

The Dannon Co., White Plains, N.Y., released several new products in the frozen and refrigerated dessert category, including five new flavors of soft-serve frozen yogurt to frozen yogurt shops: nonfat graham cracker, low-fat strawberry shortcake, no-sugar-added yellow cake batter; and what it calls more indulgent flavors: vanilla bean and Belgian waffle.

“We’re seeing core indulgent flavors and creamier textures to be increasingly on trend with consumers and store operators and the same trend is apparent in the retail sector, where the more popular flavors are on the more indulgent end of the spectrum,” said Michael J. Neuwirth, senior director of public relations for Dannon.

So what does Dannon mean when it says indulgent?

“A few things. First and foremost dessert-inspired flavors,” said Neuwirth. “Not necessarily full-fat and/or higher calorie foods but rather dessert-inspired.  Belgian waffle, birthday cake and cake batter are good examples. Indulgence for us is more about the eating experience, that is to say enjoying a refrigerated or frozen yogurt as a dessert alternative, even though it is a yogurt and has the benefits of being a yogurt,” he said.

In the packaged retail sector, Dannon launched pints of frozen Greek yogurt under its Oikos brand earlier this year. The frozen yogurt comes in chocolate, vanilla, cafe latte, strawberry, black cherry and Key lime flavors.

Dannon also brought a new dessert innovation into the refrigerated dessert aisle. Its new Creamery line features three dairy pudding desserts made with Grade A milk and five Greek yogurt-based desserts that are topped with fruit sauces that mimic cheesecake flavors. The pudding flavors are milk chocolate, dark chocolate and vanilla. The five cheesecake-inspired flavors are strawberry, lemon, blueberry, cherry and caramel.

Gelato goes mainstream

Ice cream and frozen yogurt processors watch out, because gelato is coming into its own. Gelato products hit the retail sector all over the United States in the last year. Big companies are jumping into the game (like Unilever with Breyers Gelato Indulgence) and Oakland, Calif.-based Häagen-Dazs, a brand of Nestle USA, which launched its own gelato line last year. The Häagen-Dazs line initially included seven flavors, like Stracciatella, sea salt caramel, limoncello and black cherry amaretto. This year the company added four more flavors: caramelized banana chip, pistachio, pomegranate swirl and tiramisu. 

Cincinnati, Ohio-based Graeter’s ice cream brought its version of authentic Italian gelato to Midwest and Southern stores with its new line. The company’s signature French pot process that makes its ice cream dense and creamy was actually based on Italian gelato machines, which made this new venture an easy transition, according to the company. Using an old-world freezing process, Graeter’s creates its hand-crafted gelato using specially made truffles from a family-owned candy confectioner in Pennsylvania. The line is available in caramel truffle, hazelnut truffle, vanilla with milk chocolate truffles and dark chocolate truffle flavors.

Honeysuckle Gelato, Atlanta, took gelato in a new direction by introducing a line that combines the richness of gelato with the flavors of the South.

“We simply fell in love with the creamy, smooth texture of gelato and we decided to put our own twist on it with our ‘Southern-inspired’ flavors,” said Khatera Ballard co-owner of Honeysuckle Gelato. “We saw an opportunity… because nobody was really doing it down here.”

The line is available in six flavors, including bourbon pecan, honey fig and banana with peanut butter caramel; and two sorbets (mango-peach and watermelon).

Ballard said she sees the desire for something to indulge in spreading across the entire food industry. “People are reconnecting with their food source and indulgence is at the core of this foodie movement that has evolved,” she said.

 Manufacturers of frozen and refrigerated dairy-based desserts have taken note of consumer trends. They are expanding their offerings — ice cream makers (like Nestle and Unilever) have added gelato and yogurt giant Dannon is now selling pudding. Dairy processors have also amped up their flavors and flavor combinations. Will it be enough to boost sales significantly? To paraphrase the humorist Will Rogers: the American consumer has never met a double-fudge chocolate rum truffle with a touch of sea salt that she didn’t like.