Halo Top on disrupting the ice cream market: We haven’t been trained to think inside the box

Four years ago, the low-calorie ice cream brand was “hanging by a thread”, yet today Halo Top is sold in nearly every major UK retailer. Chief operation officer Douglas Bouton explains its difficult journey and what’s next for the company.

Halo Top

Five years ago, ice cream and weight loss would have been considered polar opposites; yet fast-forward to today and the shelf is cluttered with tubs proclaiming their low-calorie count.

The growing popularity of ‘healthy’ ice cream is in part down to the rise of one brand, Halo Top, whose low-calorie, high protein tubs have been flying off the shelf since 2016. Halo Top uses sugar substitutes stevia and erythritol to sweeten the ice cream without racking up the calorie count.

It’s rise has caused such a stir that big brands are taking notice. Unilever, which owns Ben & Jerry’s, has spoken of the competition, with CFO Graeme Pitkethly telling investors last October that “very, very quickly” Halo Top had “taken 1.5 share points from us”.

READ MORE: How Häagen-Dazs is reimagining the brand for the Instagram generation

And just last week Unilever launched a competitor brand, Culture Republick, in the US, and has introduced lower calorie flavours of Ben & Jerry’s.

Halo Top launched in the UK at the beginning of the year and according to figures from IRI had already sold nearly 3.3 million pints of ice cream by 8 September 2018. That translates to roughly one pint every nine minutes. It is stocked in Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Tesco, as well as Ocado.

Being stocked in the UK’s big four supermarkets was almost impossible for the brand’s chief operation officer Douglas Bouton to imagine four years ago, when he was begging retailers not to stop selling the product.

He explains: “2014 and 2015 were the tough years where we were hanging on by a thread. We were discontinued in a bunch of stores and we were begging stores that hadn’t to just give us another chance, give us another year we said.”

It turned out another year was all the brand need. After hearing about the brand through a personal trainer, a writer for GQ detailed his experience of losing 10lbs after only eating the ice cream for 10 days. It went viral and Halo Top went from a debt-ridden startup to the best-selling pint of ice cream in the US.

That doesn’t mean it has been plain sailing since, however. The brand’s use of natural sweeteners, rather than sugar, has been questioned, with critics also questioning whether it should be allowed to call itself ice cream given its low milk fat content.

The marketing strategy

Although Bouton doesn’t advise only eating Halo Top ice cream, with a pint ranging from between 280 and 360 calories, the brand is marketed as something to be enjoyed every day rather than as an occasional indulgence.

Founded by Justin Woolverton in 2012, Bouton joined a year later and together the pair of former lawyers built the brand with no marketing background.

Bouton explains: “We haven’t been groomed within the CPG industry, the marketing world or MBA programmes. We haven’t been trained to think inside the box which has allowed us to question a lot of conventional wisdom. It was a lot of trial and error with marketing.”

At the beginning, the brand was using in-store sampling and demonstrations at trade shows to try to build up its name but quickly realised this well-trodden route wasn’t working.

Bouton explains: “We thought all we need to do is sample this product. If we just go in-store and do demos people will be blown away by this healthy ice cream. What we found is it cost a lot, and it didn’t work.

“Most people who were shopping, they will take your free sample but they don’t want to spend five seconds much less five minutes hear you tell them why your ice cream is different.”

We haven’t been groomed within the marketing world or MBA programmes. We haven’t been trained to think inside the box.

 Douglas Bouton, Halo Top

So, the brand switched to digital. Bouton laments “buzzwords” around influencer marketing but says Facebook and Instagram were crucial in spreading word of mouth. The company had two tactics — targeted ads and influencers — that they used to build up their brand.

“To us [targeted digital ads] are not a waste of spend because [people] may not buy the product or look at the ad but compared to a billboard – where millions of people might drive by and see it but not care – we could be more effective,” he explains.

On influencers, the company used college interns to trawl through healthy hashtags and find and contact fitness influencers with a sample or discount code to try the ice cream.

“For us, an influencer was not some big celebrity we were going to pay $1m. We defined it internally as somebody who had at least 1,000 followers and got 100 likes a post and a couple of comments… It was really effective, organic strategy that build up this evangelical fanbase.”

Halo Top now has a marketing and communications team of 25. As it tries to gain worldwide popularity, Bouton acknowledges traditional marketing is needed but is adamant the ethos of the company needs to remain the same.

He explains: “As we’ve gotten bigger we need to make sure we don’t become this cookie-cutter corporate organisation and stay true to our roots. We want to make sure we are genuinely engaging with our fans and don’t want corporate speak as it’s the antithesis of what we’re trying to do.”

Taking chances

This aversion to large cooperations has been tested, with reports that Unilever considered buying the company for $2bn in January. The brand isn’t owned by any public equity and was financed by “family and friends” and early crowdfunding.

Bouton believes a sense of independence is crucial to the brand: “We’ve got no board, no venture capital, and it’s really benefited us in a number of ways… We are lean and mean but also nimble and can move way faster than any multinational conglomerate.”

This is one of the ways the Halo Top has maintained its edge, according to Bouton, as it can be more reactive in both its marketing and products.

“It also allows us to take more chances. We’re not always right – we get it wrong quite a bit – and we laugh about it and try something and it doesn’t work but it allows us to take risks so we’re not just putting out every ad that you’ve ever seen before.”

We are lean and mean but also nimble and can move way faster than any multinational conglomerate

 Douglas Bouton, Halo Top’s chief operation officer

While other companies are desperately trying to capture the millennial market Halo Top is turning its focus to engaging older customers.

“The goal for us is to be a household brand name. Our brand awareness continues to go up but there is still a lot of room for growth. We want 99% of people know the name Halo Top.”

With Ben & Jerry’s, Häagen-Dazs and Unilever’s Breyer’s all targeting the same healthy category, is Halo Top worried about the competition? Not really but Bouton says it can be frustrating.

He explains: “It’s nice we created this category and on one level it’s flattering there are so many copycats but on the other hand it’s like, why can’t you be original?”

Ultimately, the brand is focusing on its own goals and innovation: “The authenticity from true innovation will help to solidify us as a lasting brand worldwide.”