Ice-Cream Chains in Search Of More Ways to Stay Cool

With competition mounting from larger fast-food chains and scrappy, innovative ice-cream franchises, two of the nation’s largest ice-cream chains are reviewing portions of their ad accounts as they gear up for the all-important summer selling season.

Berkshire Hathaway’s American Dairy Queen this week is meeting with five contenders for its $5 million Northwest regional business, the latest in a series of regional- market reviews the chain has held during the last year. The Northwest business formerly was at Grey Global Group’s Grey in Los Angeles, which resigned the account in December. (Grey in New York handles the $60 million national account, which is not in play.)

Allied Domecq’s Baskin-Robbins will send out RFPs this week for the creative portion of its $10 million national account, now at independent VitroRobertson in San Diego, the company said.

Maria Feicht, director of brand excitement at Baskin-Robbins in Randolph, Mass., said the review is an effort to find ideas to revitalize the 58-year-old brand and make it more relevant to consumers. “It’s not business as usual,” Feicht said. “We’re continually striving to get the best partners with the best ideas.”

Dairy Queen’s U.S. sales were flat at about $2.5 billion in 2002, according to Chicago food consultancy Technomic. Baskin-Robbins’ sales fell 4.5 percent for the year ended Aug. 31, according to Allied Domecq. Baskin-Robbins had 2002 sales of $546 million, according to Technomic, which had no 2003 figures.

Ron Paul, president of Technomic, said the brands need to find a stronger point of difference. “You can get soft serve in a McDonald’s,” he said. And smaller, fast-growing companies such as Cold Stone Creamery and Marble Slab Creamery are cutting into the ice-cream sector with customized products that feature offerings such as add-in flavorings and candies.

Baskin-Robbins’ most recent TV spots from VitroRobertson have pushed “fun, quality ice cream” with the tagline, “What’s your flavor?”; one spot from 2003 showed animated quarts of ice cream competing to get noticed by a customer. Baskin-Robbins also has partnered with DreamWorks to create flavors linked to films such as Shrek, with spots from VitroRobertson backing the promotions. The chain expects to work with DreamWorks again in the future.

Baskin-Robbins will issue RFPs to less than 10 agencies, and will concentrate on shops on the East and West coasts, Feicht said. While the assignment is for creative only, Feicht said Baskin-Robbins would be interested in hearing about the invited shops’ media- buying capabilities. IPG’s Initiative in Los Angeles handles buying. Work will include national as well as local duties, said Feicht.

The Northwest account for Dairy Queen, which has 15-20 regional shops, covers stores in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Utah, and includes creative and media. The five finalists are IPG’s Sedgwick Rd. and independent WongDoody, both in Seattle; independents Bradshaw Advertising and Gard & Gerber, both in Portland, Ore.; and independent Brighton Jordan in St. Louis, which has picked up an additional 14 Dairy Queen markets through reviews and now has 25.

The regional work consists primarily of molding national ads to fit marketplace promotions. A Dairy Queen effort by Grey that broke a year ago, tagged, “Something different,” emphasized new offerings; one spot humorously showed alternative cake messages, such as “The wedding’s off.”

Dairy Queen has 300 of its 5,900 U.S. stores in the Northwest. “It’s much bigger [there] than in other parts of the country,” said Bob Paine, director of regional marketing for the Minneapolis-based chain. The Dairy Queens in the region feature a full line of burgers, fries and chicken. “We see ourselves as much more of a fast-food company in the Northwest,” Paine said.

Allied Domecq has adopted a similar strategy of offering more choices to buoy its food chains by placing multiple stores under one roof. Thirty-seven percent of Baskin Robbins’ 5,100 stores now share space with Allied Domecq franchises such as Dunkin’ Donuts or Togo’s, the company said.

Dairy Queen expects to hire a Northwest agency as early as this week, while Baskin- Robbins hopes to select its agency by mid-May.