Thursday, June 30, 2005

"We Make People Happy" Part 2

For those too young to remember, Baskin-Robbins 31 Ice Cream was once the unchallenged leader of its industry. With its superb quality and ability to create nationwide buzz with wacky and imaginative flavors, B-R ruled the roost.

And it was mostly due to stories.

Yes, creativity, a great product and relevant stores were part of the mix, but for its first 40 years, Baskin-Robbins flourished on its stories.

Looking back, that's very clear. When I began there in the 1970s, the company was steeped in its own mythology—and I mean that in the most Joseph Campbell-ian sense. B-R's origins are straight out of "The Hero's Journey:" Two young guys, far from home, their lives interrupted by World War II, start ice cream businesses in exotic Southern California. Despite the competitive challenges of commoditization via mass production and supermarket distribution, the pair beats the odds and, in so doing, transforms the ice cream industry.

Yet there's more than mere corporate mythology. It's personal. Founder Irv Robbins (who in 1945 opened his first "Snowbird" store in Glendale, California) is himself a storyteller par excellence. In working with Mr. Robbins before his retirement, I found that not only does he have a lot of stories to tell, he delights in telling them. And I suspect it was that way from the beginning. When I got the chance to see his personal scrapbook from the early years, I found a compelling tale in words, photos and original packaging. Even his first advertising materials contained stories.

Thus storytelling was at the heart of Baskin-Robbins from its beginning. That was a good thing, for it began during the golden age of television when, says Seth Godin, "to grow your company, all you had to do was create a commercial that generate demand—and then make something to sell." Baskin-Robbins had something wonderful to sell, but they didn't have the money to pay for mass-market advertising.

Enter the story. In its landmark 1953 proposal that would turn Baskin-Robbins into a household name, the fledgling Carson Roberts agency said this:
We felt that the "31" was a symbol we could 'hang our hats on' for all purposes. It tells our merchandising story... Everything gets into the act: from the car which delivers, to the bar across which the consumer buys...we keep selling the "31" story."
Mr. Baskin and Mr. Robbins took the advice—and saw sales nearly triple in just five years. The infusion of story into all B-R did is evident in its first employee handbook, dated 1958. Some excerpts:
  • This is a story dedicated to all member of the Baskin-Robbins family.

  • Here for the first time between two covers is the story of your company.

  • It's a story of dedication to quality...a story written by many men and women.

  • The next chapters will be written by you.

  • Here is the interesting step-by-step story of how Baskin-Robbins ice cream is processed.
Because the small company couldn't afford mass advertising, it was forced to rely on the most powerful marketing force of all. Storytelling became a foundation of the corporate culture and would propel Baskin-Robbins to stardom. We'll see how in the next installment.

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