Is Baskin-Robbins still the flavor of the month, or can Cold Stone Creamery scoop it?

franchises: 2,463
Franchise 500 rank: 56*

Cold Stone Creamery
franchises: 1,050
Franchise 500 rank: 53*

*Entrepreneur Magazine

We all scream for ice cream, but what two of the top ice cream chains are screaming for is a clue. In an era when marketers are clawing to out-engage each other for customer love, one would think ice cream dippers would be at the head of the hug-me pack. Think about it: What product does a consumer engage with more intimately, more lovingly, than an ice cream cone? Alas, the love goes unrequited by Baskin-Robbins and Cold Stone Creamery. The sad thing is, most of this month’s judges agree: Each has a strong story that it’s not telling.

In one corner is Baskin-Robbins, the flavor king and heavyweight champ with more than 2,400 locations in the United States. In the other sits the challenger, Cold Stone Creamery, weighing in at only 1,000 or so domestic stores.

“Cold Stone has something really unique in terms of the experience they deliver, mixing up and mushing together the ice cream and the ingredients,” says Adam Kleinberg, CEO of Traction. “But if you look at Pinterest, Cold Stone doesn’t do much with it. Hundreds of people post images of their Cold Stone experiences on their own. These are moments of brand joy that they’re not capitalizing on.”

Baskin-Robbins, meanwhile, served up some social media roundhouses. “I had a preconceived notion that Cold Stone might have an edge in social media, but Baskin-Robbins holds its own,” says Havas Discovery Group President Paul Marobella, who notes a one-sided battle on Facebook, where Baskin-Robbins has a little more than six million fans to Cold Stone Creamery’s two million.

“Baskin-Robbins’s page is updated several times each day with pastel photographs of ice cream swirls, store specials, and playful come-ons—‘Pink Bubblegum vs. Cotton Candy, Name This Flavor.’ It isn’t uncommon for a single page post to get 12,000 likes,” Marobella observes. “On Cold Stone, the most recent post I saw was one-week old. I’m surprised there isn’t more active participation.”

Baskin-Robbins’s social swag drooped on Twitter.

“It’s really bad. All they do is sell. They don’t understand the space at all,” says OgilvyOne Group Creative Director Jim Thompson. “[It] was, ‘Hey we’ve got this, grab a spoon, hashtag to a flavor. Come in for a 99-cent cone. It’s ice cream and it’s cheap.’ In social you want to build the relationship, but there was no value exchange here.”

Cold Stone Creamery wins the Twitter round, in Thompson’s judgment. “They tweet a lot. They had 15 tweets today and they add value to the conversation,” he says. “They had one on food allergies, and since I have a kid with a peanut allergy, that made me like them, especially since this is a category about kids.”

Mark Pollard, VP of brand strategy at Big Spaceship, thinks that both brands are operating with conventional fight plans due to the constraints of having to please thousands of franchisees. “For franchise businesses, both do pretty well,” he says. “Baskin-Robbins is more visually striking with its creative. It has better content, but it’s not engaging. Cold Stone has more interaction, but its content is lacking. If the content tends to be salesy and robotic, maybe that’s what they need. Franchisees are very conservative.”

In that regard, most judges were unimpressed with the combatants’ advertising and video efforts. “They’re both clueless on that front,” Kleinberg asserts. “Strategically, Baskin decided they’re about flavors, and they do support that in the content they create. It’s just that they’re not doing anything exciting with it. Cold Stone could kill it. It’s the experience that matters and they’ve got that experience and it’s exciting and they’re the only one that have it. Yet, some of the homemade movies on YouTube that their employees created do a better job of conveying that.”

Thompson wonders if either company has done a proper assessment of its competitive positionings. “Baskin-Robbins uses good, sound design and their focus on flavors and ingredients is OK; it’s just that they don’t introduce themselves and give people a reason to seek them out,” he says. He adds that these brands aren’t just competing with each other, they’re also competing with supermarkets and the ability for parents to simply spoon out great ice cream at home.

One such sell message was mentioned casually in a spot from Cold Stone Creamery called “Smile,” but, disappointingly, wasn’t cashed in on or leveraged across other channels. “They talked about how their ice cream was made fresh each day in store, and then they showed a family eating cones on the Fourth of July,” Thompson says. They never mention themselves or show someone making this delicious treat. Instead, it’s a category sell. It could make me go to any ice cream shop.”

Marobella appreciated how Baskin-Robbins kept its video work short and to-the-point, such as a 15-second spot of sensory overload that blasted the components of a frosty beverage at viewers. He also found Cold Stone Creamery expressing its flair for in-store dramatics in a spot tagged “Create your own mix,” which targets “those who never get what they want.”

Judges clashed most over the quality and efficacy of the brands’ websites. Marobella saw a calculation in Baskin-Robbins’s destination, but only frustration in Cold Stone Creamery’s website. “As a consumer, I visit an ice cream parlor site because I want some damn ice cream,” he says. “Where is the closest location? Do you have any specials? Baskin-Robbins’s site tells me where to go, informs me of the current deals, and entices me with special flavors. Will it win any awards? I don’t care. Give me my ice cream.”

As for Cold Stone Creamery? “I can see your delicious ice creams, but I can’t touch them,” Marobella chides. “Each time I try to click, they disappear. I spend several minutes clicking on arrows and boxes that get me nowhere, while being told not to lick my screen. I learned nothing more about the ice cream, flavors, cost, or specials, and am asked seven times whether the site can access my current location.”

Thompson had the website fight going the other way. “Cold Stone’s website looked a lot more professional from an aesthetic view. The writing was more playful, much better photography. They showed fresher ingredients like raspberries [blended] into an ice cream cone. It made me hungry.”

Not much at all on Baskin-Robbins’s website worked for him, however. “Nothing makes me bond with the brand. The photography wasn’t shot using a food stylist and had no appetite appeal. I thought I was looking at it through a grocery case window.”

Judges called fouls on both brands for lacking a clear mobile strategy, a big miss in a category appealing to youthful customers on-the-go who wouldn’t hesitate to consult their smartphones for directions to the nearest ice cream oasis. Kleinberg did give Cold Stone Creamery extra credit for optimizing its website for mobile and infusing it with different content. Neither Cold Stone Creamery nor Baskin-Robbins has an app.

“They could test mobile with coupons. “Website or app, it doesn’t matter. We actually prefer to investigate options other than apps,” Pollard says. Send offers to people within a certain radius of stores. As for emails, both get near incompletes. Sign-ups on both brands’ loyalty club pages produced one email from Baskin-Robbins promoting Coke floats three days later and not so much as a how-do-you-do from Cold Stone Creamery after the passing of a week. Print and display ads got yawns from the judges. “Pretty unremarkable stuff,” Pollard notes. “They’re playing the reach and frequency game. It’s an arms race, but I don’t know where it leads.”

“Neither one of these brands,” Kleinberg sums up, “is doing anything beyond checking boxes.”

Brand Champion

A technical knockout is awarded to Baskin-Robbins. The more established player has a better sense of its “flavor” positioning and works it most consistently across all channels. Its creative footwork may be dull and plodding, but it’s effective. Cold Stone Creamery has yet to fully realize or capitalize on the customer experience value of its in-store show. It could be the social media champ in this category if it only invited its fans to express their love for the brand.

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