Opinion Series: Category Ethnography – Ice Cream

by Diane Lindquist on 05/05/2014 | 7 Minute Read

Welcome back our returning contributor, Aaron Keller, Managing Director of Capsule!

This year Aaron Keller and the Capsule Research Team will be focusing on their on-going research – the studying one consumer category. Each month Aaron Keller and the Capsule Research Team will be using one consumer category and looking into the influence of design in the broadest use of the term. They call this opinion series, "Category Ethnography" and they are starting the series with delicious ice cream.

Our research group has taken on the task of studying one consumer category per month, starting now. They are looking for the influence of design in the broadest use of the term. From the design of packaging to any surrounding “Designed Moments” contributing to the broader experience. They have chosen to use a mobile ethnographic methodology blended with observation and secondary quantitative research. Essentially, enough to give a valid perspective on the role design has in the category and where it is making a positive contribution.

This month: the beloved cream of life, Ice Cream.

WTF about Ice Cream: American’s consume 48 pints per year on average, it takes 12 gallons of milk to produce one gallon of ice cream, and a “brain freeze” is due to cold pressing near your brain stem and dilating the vessels in your brain. Wowza.

Now you know.

Design in ice cream. Packaging in a frozen section of anything has to work just that much harder to get you to open the frosted door. So, the use of vibrant flavor colors and luxurious graphical elements are common. The category is obviously mature, but there are larger movements making an impact. Our category study using a mobile research tool turned up numerous findings (part of a larger report), some of these are pulled out and overlaid with broader cultural movements.


Broader movements.

Craft: the large producers vs the small batch movement is showing up in ice cream, certainly graphically, but also authentically.

Smaller is better: where some categories, “bigger is better”, the “smaller is better” philosophy has more momentum as evidence in the Ben & Jerry’s, Haagen Dazs and Talenti brands.

Evolving Iconography: the ice cream scoop is still the baseline standard for large “value” tubs, but the use of flavors, ingredients and new ice cream scoop shapes is taking the place of these over abused icons.

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Organics: this cultural movement has taken a scoop out of the traditional ice cream brands, but there’s still a bit of the “my grandfather’s” organic look to the design. The most advanced organics in other categories are not afraid to shed the “woodcut” stereotype in favor of a mass organic consumer. This is about to occur in ice cream.

Sustainability: less materials, better materials, less weight shipped, better uses after the product is consumed and the big one, packages returned to retailers post consumption. Yes, sustainable is a much larger subject, we’re just covering a few of the subjects to likely impact ice cream in the next decade.

Function junction: the ever-evolving role of packaging is showing some tendencies toward more function beyond the plastic tub. Adding a spoon to a single-serving size is a simple example, there are likely going to be others as the category packaging advances. The junction between what is product and what is package is changing.

Packaging purpose: Tom’s and Warby Parker are not the first, but they are the most visible examples of this movement. The idea of embedding social responsibility into the organization actually goes back hundreds of years (if you object, this is for another discussion). Ben & Jerry’s is the leading example in ice cream, but the current form of this movement has yet to reach the category. It is coming soon.


Funny moments.

The Cotton Candy Ice Cream from Kemps with an “Artificially Flavored” right above the “Real Ice Cream” is a bit awkward.

The use of “yellow” as the background to “Clear Value” is working really hard to make the product entirely unappealing. Hard to imaging a package that would come between our spoons and ice cream, but this one has done it.

Mobile research was conducted using an app and shoppers were asked to answer questions, take photos and make an ice cream purchase.  

The white color and hand crafted feel of Alden’s gets lost in settings where they don’t have a large stock of their tubs.

We see plenty of beautiful design making a contribution to attract a consumer to a package. We love to put beauty on a pedestal and believe it is all we need, but everyone is reminded, beauty without brains is just not enough.

So, we define design as beauty plus brains and therefore we seek details to add positive moments to the experience. Perhaps small at first, but as you see them in the larger universe, their contribution is so much larger.

Beautiful Moments. “Someone just threw heaven into my mouth.”

Ideas and exercises for those in the category.

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Ben & Jerry’s has shown us what extreme “mission-driven” personality looks like in the category, but who’s next? How would the Red Bull approach ice cream? Perhaps this is an exercise someone should run and see what form of frozen cream comes out the other side. Because we love Ben and Jerry, but they’re getting old and we do have the next generation of “mission-driven” ice cream lovers coming of age, right?

Less manufacturing, more craftsmanship: Perhaps a properly placed cookie on top to indicate freshness or a personal touch to a handcrafted batch of ice cream? Give us some indication that a human being was involved.

Let’s talk about the whole “interwebs” thingy and how we might be able to craft our own batch of ice cream online and have two-gallon tubs shipped in time for a birthday party. My mom’s famous chocolate cookies in an ice cream anyone? Yes, thank you.

Fresh is a moment in time. There are “on package” temp technologies available. Could an innovative package include something to indicate the ideal moment to open the tub of frozen delight and start scooping? Some of us prefer a moderately soft scoop of a rich ice cream style.

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How about cozies for these smaller “personal” sizes ice cream packages? Small and Large sizes because you know you’ve struggled to hold onto one of those Haagen Dazs frozen packages while you emptied the entire thing in one sitting. Haven’t we all? Let’s save our hands from frostbite while we do.

And, last, what would a package of ice cream look like if we started with a Play-Doh construct and design an ice cream experience for kids? Popups are the classic form, but there has to be another more interesting way to deliver a unique ice cream experience for kids.

Well there it is, our first of many more categories to be studied. We are using observational research, mobile ethnographies and a small ideation session with our team. Do you have a category you’d like us to study? Did this give you a taste for something more and you’d like to have more on what we found?


Feel free to contact us and we’ll provide any answers we have available.

Aaron Keller and the Capsule Research Team

About Aaron Keller

Website • Email •  LinkedIn

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Aaron Keller is the Managing Principal and co-founder of Capsule, the highly regarded national brand research, strategy, identity and packaging design firm located in Minneapolis, MN. A sampling of Capsule’s clients include Caribou Coffee, Fox River Socks, Red Wing Shoes, Double Cross Vodka, Target, 3M, U.S. Bank, Wells Fargo, Brown Forman, Byerly’s, Capital One, Cargill, Edens, Fisher-Price, Sears, HoMedics, Honeywell, Lawson Software, Mattel, Medtronic, Minnesota Orchestra, Outdoor Research, Panda Express, Patagonia, PrairieStone Pharmacies, Schroeder Milk, Schuler Shoes, SmartWool, Thrivent and Yakima. 



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