Tuesday, July 05, 2005

"We Make People Happy" Part 3

We're in the midst of a case study or, more accurately, a case story—a tale of how incessant storytelling fueled the growth of Baskin-Robbins 31 Ice Cream in its first three decades. I think it nicely demonstrates Seth Godin's assertion that marketing is storytelling. I'll go further: Storytelling is an essential element in creating powerful user experiences.

Marketing-by-storytelling may not have been the first choice of young Irv Robbins and Burt Baskin. After all, when they approached the Carson Roberts agency in 1953, it was to purchase their first big ad campaign in the Los Angeles Times. But the agency took one look at the budget and one look at the 17 stores and knew there was a problem. Five hundred dollars wouldn't go far and, worse, the stores lacked a common identity, bearing either the Snowbird or Burton's monicker. So Carson Roberts proposed something altogether different—telling a story of 31 Flavors:
After investigating the market, we found that the one big point of difference between this manufacturer, this store and all competitors was the magic of the 31 different flavors... We felt that the "31" was a symbol we could 'hang our hats on' for all purposes. It tells our merchandising story. It is the one big obvious point of difference between us and our competitors. It is easily remembered.
From there, they created a dramatic symbol—the Big 31 surrounded by cherry and chocolate polka dots—and insisted that everything from cartons to delivery trucks tell "the '31' story."

If we want to get all MBA about it, Baskin-Robbins' marketing message was really "quality and innovation in an age of ice cream commoditization." Quality was a direct assault on the young company's chief competitors (grocery stores) and their cheaply-made generic ice creams. Innovation challenged the extremely limited flavor selection of the time.

But that's not very compelling, is it? So how did Baskin-Robbins tell its stories in the 50s, 60s and early 70s?

Above all, it was the tale of the 31 Flavors, one for each day of the month. The number appeared everywhere—on containers, uniforms, wall hangings, ads, clocks, puppets, beach balls and (most prominently) blazing outside every store.
With that one symbol, Baskin-Robbins signaled liberation from the "Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" constraints of the 50s and appealed to the universal desire for the new. In the 50s and 60s, no one offered more than a handful of ice cream flavors while Baskin-Robbins offered 31! It was uniquely new, different and adventurous. And by adding new flavors each month, Baskin-Robbins kept its story fresh, relevant and attention-getting, because (as Seth Godin notes) "people only notice stuff that's new and different."

Besides the "big" story of the 31, Baskin-Robbins told the stories of individual flavors. It seemed that every flavor had some kind of story. From Jamoca® (made from a custom blend of freshly-brewed coffee) to Oregon Blackberry (made only from select berries from the slopes of Mt. Hood), every flavor was assigned a "quick sentence" that scoopers could share with customers. Dedicated signs (dubbed "hot signs" for their fluorescent hues) told the stories in quirky cartoons. And the stories grew mythic as time passed:
  • Burt Baskin once met a man who told him, "Whoever thinks of all these flavors must be plumb nuts!" "Congratulations," said Mr. Baskin. "You just invented a new flavor: Plum Nuts."

  • At the height of Beatlemania just before the Fab Four's first U.S. tour, a reporter from The Washington Post called Irv Robbins and asked what new flavor would honor the Beatles. The truth was Baskin-Robbins had not invented a Beatles flavor. Caught unprepared, Mr. Robbins gulped and blurted, "Uh, Beatle Nut, of course." It was created, manufactured and delivered in just five days.

  • Following a trip to New Orleans, Irv and Irma Robbins were enjoying some souvenir pralines at home when the Flavor Muse struck. They rushed to the kitchen, mixed the pralines with vanilla ice cream and a caramel ribbon—and Pralines 'n Cream was born. It was such a hit that stores all over the country ran out. Advice columnist Dear Abby pleaded in print for its return. Headquarters received petitions with hundreds of signatures. And in Santa Barbara, students picketed local stores until Baskin-Robbins delivered a special production run of the flavor.
Then there was the Flavor of the Month story. By introducing new flavors each month (and while rotating favorites in and out of the stores), Baskin-Robbins went beyond "just" 31, offering a different 31, a different set of stories each month. This soon took on a life of its own with flavors inspired by pop culture, exotic locales, historic events, and television shows. By retelling it each month with a new twist, the strategy kept the 31 story from becoming mundane.

Even the stores told the story. The brand motif (the 31 and polka dots) were prominently displayed outside. Flavor signs hung in every window. Inside, gleaming freezers put the flavors front and center. The largest sign in the store was a pegboard listing every available flavor. Small "flavor lists" served as menus, telling the story of the Flavor of the Month and promoting the next month's selection. As a bonus, the stores were customer-friendly, providing a suitable and easy-to-clean environment for families loaded with little Boomer children.

Perhaps most important, the Baskin-Robbins story was an easy story to tell. It was brief, it was fun, it was easily shared by children and adults.

The result? In 20 years, the 17 stores in Los Angeles blossomed to more than 1500 nationwide without traditional mass-market advertising.

Next time: The secret behind the story.


Blogger Dan McGowan said...


Just letting you know that I am having a 31-derful time reading this on-going story of stories - and remembering a few of my own along the way... I'd say more, but I'm busy "thinking..."

4:30 PM  
Blogger Dan McGowan said...

It occured to me that this slogan might also fit a majority of the churches in America today... That's my feeling, at least... cuz I see it over and over again... We Make People Happy - with our music choices, our sermon topics, the wearing of choir robes, the use of electric drums and powerpoint - you name it... and, when we DON'T make people happy, they vote with their feet - so we BETTER make them happy!

Okay, 'nuf preachin'...

2:42 PM  

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