Friday, July 15, 2005

The Day the Story Died

Back in 1971, Don McLean sang of "The day the music died" in his monster hit, American Pie. Today, I'll talk about the death of a story.

By the time of its 31st birthday in 1976, Baskin-Robbins 31 Ice Cream was at the peak of its popularity. Finally a truly national brand, the company boasted more than 1500 stores from coast to coast with dozens added each year. Excepting a few small regional chains, Baskin-Robbins was America's hands-down favorite ice cream and the unquestioned leader of the market.

The engine of B-R's success was its innovative, high-quality product in an age of ice cream commoditization. But it was the stories the company told that fueled that engine—stories of flavors, stories of quality, but especially stories of fun.

The storytelling started at the top. "We don't sell ice cream; we sell fun!" said founder Irv Robbins. In 1972, marketing VP Bruce Enderwood recast it as "We make people happy."

Mr. Robbins and his immediate successors were the viral carriers, the "Typhoid Marys" of the brand story, and forged the company in that story's image. Working at Baskin-Robbins headquarters in their day (as I did) meant getting infected with an enthusiasm for quality, innovation and fun. And it filtered right down to the people scooping the ice cream in the stores.

As Seth Godin demonstrates, successful marketers tell stories that people want and choose to believe. The Baskin-Robbins story worked so well because it was true. People did have fun at Baskin-Robbins. Not only did they find terrific ice cream in unheard of flavors, but they also found "people of the story"—franchisees and employees who so believed the story themselves that they delivered the brand promise.

It's not quite that way today. While Baskin-Robbins typically leads the lists of favorite ice creams, it's not the marketing powerhouse it once was. It is perceived more as a commodity ice cream, the McDonalds of the industry. Its fabled innovation is sluggish. Competitors have wedged their way into the market, many of them using the same strategies that served Baskin-Robbins so well.

What happened? I think B-R's story died.

It was a slow decline, starting with the usual threat to a company founded by entrepreneurs: Mr. Robbins and his successors began to retire in the late 1970s. New faces filled their positions, qualified people to be sure, but people who hadn't caught the bug, who didn't live the story. We "oldtimers" (for that was what we had become, regardless of our ages) felt a sea change.

Meanwhile, developments elsewhere spelled rough seas ahead. Chief among them was a change in cultural worldview. During Baskin-Robbins' first three decades, consumers viewed ice cream as a wholesome treat. Yes, it was rich, creamy and caloric but was derived from dairy products and (consumed in relative moderation) was even seen as good for you. That view was turned on its head in the 80s as study after study revealed the dangers of a diet high in saturated fats. People began to worry about fatty foods—and ice cream was high on the list.

This shift in perspective profoundly threatened Baskin-Robbins. Godin explains that marketing stories are effective when they are appropriately framed in terms of consumers' worldviews. Suddenly, B-R's story of "ice cream fun" became suspect. It's hard to have fun and feel happy when you're worried about your arteries!

Into the gap charged a new challenger—frozen yogurt! With its long-held position in consumers' psyches as a "health food," yogurt (especially of the lowfat variety) came to be seen as a healthy alternative to ice cream. Soft-serve yogurt shops sprang up practically overnight—TCBY leading the way. Baskin-Robbins (historically an innovator) was caught flatfooted and responded with several so-so flavors of hard-serve frozen yogurt. The company's brand as a trailblazer took a hit as the yogurt competitors blossomed. The eventual addition of soft-serve yogurt in B-R stores came too little, too late.

Next—in an unexpected counter-reaction to fat fears—Häagen-Dazs (a venerable New York company with an ersatz Old World name) rode the crest of the 1980s' fascination with designer products. In a direct assault on Baskin-Robbins' story of quality, H-D boasted that its high-fat product was the "ultimate super-premium ice cream." Again, Baskin-Robbins was unprepared. The eventual release of its own copycat super-premium line did little to staunch the loss of its reputation for quality and innovation.

Meanwhile, Dove Chocolate opened up a third front by introducing its luxurious Dovebars. They ignited a new demand for opulent ice cream novelties—one Baskin-Robbins' hastily-released bars failed to satisfy.

Finally, insult was added to injury as upstart Ben & Jerry's flourished by adopting B-R's story of fun and wacky flavors as its own, coupling it with a worldview-congruent concern for social and environmental issues.

In the midst of this turmoil, Baskin-Robbins had paradoxically reached new heights in product quality. Its labs were the best in the world, staffed by outstanding technologists. Its plants were state of the art. The problem wasn't in B-R's abilities and resources; no, it was a matter of heart. The story of fun that had built the brand had been set aside (along with its classic 31 logo) as old-fashioned and unsophisticated. Baskin-Robbins had lost the fire in its belly that drove its passion for innovation.

In the mid-1990s, hope arose in Baskin-Robbins' International group where many of the company's oldtimers had fled. Under the inspired marketing direction of Neil McMillan and Maureen McConnell, B-R's brand story was resurrected and told to an attentive world. Fun was emphasized. Amazing new flavors introduced (many featuring exotic global ingredients). Baskin-Robbins re-established its credentials, this time as the world's Flavor Expert. The result? Declining sales reversed, resulting in a cumulative overseas growth of 55% over five years.

The story has life in it yet.

I won't claim that it was only the corporate neglect of Baskin-Robbins' ancestral story that caused its malaise of the last twenty years. Increased competition, a changing market, pressures from the parent company, human foibles and more all played a role. Yet I can't help but believe (and All Marketers Are Liars seems to confirm) that if the heritage of the brand—best expressed by its story—had been nurtured and celebrated by its new generations of leaders, Baskin-Robbins would have better weathered the storms.

What does the future hold for Baskin-Robbins? Things could be interesting. Pernod Ricard has purchased B-R's parent company, Allied Domecq.The buzz is that Pernod will divest itself of A-D's non-spirits brands, including Baskin-Robbins.

Next time: One last post on this subject, including why it's so important to UXCentricity.

Full disclosure: I worked for Baskin-Robbins corporate from 1973 through 1987—and as a consultant (mostly to the International marketing group) since then.


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