Teeming fans in a state of unhinged hysteria. Police horses and barricades. The flash of cameras everywhere. The electricity in the air is practically tangible.
The Beatles debut in America in 1966?
Nah, just a new flavor of Halo Top ice cream being stocked at your local grocery store.
What you’re about to read seems impossible, but believe it: Halo Top, barely over five years old as a brand and company, is now America’s number one pint form ice cream. Sorry, Häagen-Dazs, Ben & Jerry’s, and other incumbents. What’s more, depending on whom you ask, Halo Top might now be America’s top selling ice cream brand, period. Annual revenue is already in nine figures according to most, and Reuters recently pegged their valuation at $2 Billion.
By all measures, Halo Top falls in the realm of phenomenology, like the Beatles, the Furby, and other instant smashes striking a nerve at the nexus of consumerism and pop culture.
Earlier this week, Halo Top co-founders Justin Woolverton and Doug Bouton told me the story.
They are anything but classically-trained consumer product guys. They met in Los Angeles as mildly disaffected lawyers in a pickup basketball league populated mostly by others like them (one can only imagine the arguments over foul calls).
Woolverton was looking for a creative outlet, and like many wandering souls in Los Angeles, had already been trying his hand at acting and standup comedy on the side. He told me he didn’t quite know what his new adventure would be, only that he wanted one.
Then it found him. A diet and fitness nut cursed by a love of ice cream, he wondered one day: why does this creamy goodness have to be so bad for you? “Sugar was the culprit,” he said.
So on a lark one night, he bought an ice cream maker for about twenty bucks on Amazon. Then, using his apartment as a test lab, he (literally) whipped up a few batches of a new kind of ice cream, with a profile inspired in part by Greek yogurt.
It was really good, and a few of his health-conscious friends thought so too. Believing he was on to something, it was back to Amazon: he bought a “how to” book about starting a food business.
Bouton soon joined him, adding business rigor to complement Woolverton’s product passion. And they both intensively committed to the sales process, beginning with pitching Whole Foods stores in southern California. Timeline: 2012.
Fast forward to 2016, past untold rejection, several brushes with financial death (including huge personal credit card debt and a dust-up with predatory lenders), and one brush with actual death (in the early days, Woolverton distributed the product himself out of his car, and the fumes from the dry ice created extremely dangerous air quality issues that once nearly caused him to pass out on the freeway). They persevered through it all, continued to innovate, and became a sensation.
The founders and I discussed whether there is a playbook to what I’ll call Brand Beatlization. (Bouton wanted to be Ringo, by the way). Certainly, timing and good fortune were contributors.
There are, however, a few key lessons from their explosion onto the scene:
Make sure your product is truly different. Many innovation leaders myopically convince themselves that their creations are revolutions, when actually they are just low-impact evolutions… at best. By using new ingredients like stevia and adding more air into the product, Halo Top created a healthier pint that one could (in theory) responsibly consume in a single sitting. This was and is massively novel and meaningful.
Design Design Design. Woolverton and Bouton are proud of the Halo Top look, and appropriately so. This is a great example of brand-as-art, and there is nothing else quite like it in their space. Practically every time, beauty sells. They have a robust side business of Halo Top merchandise for this reason. One question to ask yourself when you’re evaluating a design identity idea: is it tee-shirt worthy?
Watch That Tone of Voice. This is not a scolding from your mother. Woolverton and Bouton took great care to nail the vibe of their communications, from minutia on the container to all other touchpoints, establishing a fun, cheeky dialogue that engaged people in conversation. They are reveling in their non-corporate independence, and it’s attractive.