Nostalgia and Innovation Have Kept the Nearly 100-Year-Old Klondike Competitive

The ice cream bar now owned by Unilever is still with us, but why?

The Klondike bar's lack of a stick was one of its points of differentiation in the early days.
Raquel Beauchamp

It’s one of free-market capitalism’s articles of faith that competition breeds excellence. Case in point: A handheld treat called the Klondike bar.

It was 1922—give or take—and ice cream impresario Chester Isaly was peeved over the appearance of the Eskimo Pie, a chocolate-dipped ice cream bar on a stick introduced by his competitor Christian Kent Nelson. Isaly, who with his family operated the wildly popular Isaly’s dairy and ice cream shops in Ohio and Pennsylvania, wanted to hit back. “If it’s just ice cream with a chocolate cover,” his daughter Margaret remembered him saying, “well, we can do the same.”

From left: An Ohio and Pennsylvania institution, Isaly’s was famed for its “Skyscraper Cones.” In this ad, Klondike bars were an affordable treat for a working-class customer base. While the silver foil wrapper has changed over the years (losing the Isaly’s name in the late 1970s), it’s never been without its chilly blue type and the requisite polar bear.
Isalys.com

Actually, the Isalys (Chester’s brothers Sam and Charlie were also involved) did better: Taking a huge hunk of vanilla ice cream, they dunked it in Swiss milk chocolate and proclaimed the “adult” ice cream bar needed no stick. Finally, in another smack to the frosty-sounding Eskimo Pie, the Isalys chose an even chillier name: Klondike, the river in Canada’s Yukon Territory. And thus a classic was born.

Nearly a century later, it’s still with us. But why? There’s nothing especially unique about a block of ice cream with a chocolate shell, even one as obviously tasty as this. But Klondike’s appeal goes beyond the milk fat to another ingredient: 100 percent pure nostalgia.

The innards: The base ingredient of a 4.5-ounce Klondike, vanilla ice cream was one of Isaly’s signature products and remains the classic Klondike variety today. The handle: Actually, there isn’t one. The lack of a stick was one of Klondike’s points of differentiation in the early days. The “adult” treat didn’t need one. The outside: Klondikes are coated in a shell of Swiss milk chocolate, which turns suitably brittle when it hits the cold ice cream, and can be flaked off and eaten on its own.
Raquel Beauchamp

Anyone old enough to remember Isaly’s (which left family control in the 1980s)  regards Klondike with true reverence—a sentiment shared by those in the rest of America who encountered Klondike in the 1970s and ’80s when investor Henry DeBrunner Clarke Jr. took the brand national. (Since 1993, Klondike has been the property of Unilever, which brought the treat to—appropriately enough—Canada.) “It’s a brand with a rich history,” said senior global marketing director Bruno Francisco, “and one that consumers remember growing up with and still love today.”

Then there’s the marketing. Even those who’ve never had a Klondike can probably hum the famous “What Would You Do for a Klondike Bar?,” a 35-year-old ditty so irrepressible it came in at No. 3 last year on YouGov’s survey of most-liked commercial jingles. More recently, Klondike shelved the song in favor of an anthropomorphic love story, care of the Via Agency, between a Klondike and various tall and tasty candy bars, whose liaisons produce a host of exotic offspring (see sidebar).

“Aside from a warm nostalgia appeal, which is fairly priceless in such volatile times, Klondike’s appeal has stayed strong because of how wider innovation trends have developed in ice cream,” observed Mintel global food and drink analyst Alex Beckett, who added that Unilever’s willingness to innovate has kept Klondike abreast of the competition.

Chester Isaly would surely have approved.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 21, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.