CORPORATE CASE STUDY: Savvy brand strategy helps creamery taste success

Amid much competition in the ice cream market, the communications team for Cold Stone Creamery strives to carve out a niche by using lots of local PR instead of national ads.

Amid much competition in the ice cream market, the communications team for Cold Stone Creamery strives to carve out a niche by using lots of local PR instead of national ads.

Depending on whom you talk to, doing in-house communications for an ice cream company could be the best job in the world, or the worst. Consider the perks: free delicious snacks and the task of promoting a product that is nationally loved. However, America's favorite treat is readily available in any supermarket, and those who choose to enter the space have beloved brands like Ben & Jerry's, Baskin-Robbins and Ha?gen-Dazs to contend with. The communications team at Scottsdale, AZ-based Cold Stone Creamery knows what it's up against, but thanks to a savvy brand strategy, it has managed to reap the perks of working in the ice cream industry, while avoiding many of the pitfalls. Cold Stone's product isn't like the average pint of ice cream. Neither hard nor soft, the creamy frozen dessert is pliable, and visitors to a Cold Stone store can personalize their serving by choosing a base flavor and mixing in a number of toppings, such as fruit, nuts, candy and syrups. Employees do the mixing by hand on a frozen granite stone (hence the company name) that is kept at 16 degrees Fahrenheit to prevent the base from melting. Individual stores are franchised by local business owners, turning a visit into an experience, with staff members singing for tips and treating customers with smiles, as well as dessert. "We're really fun, with a friendly, enthusiastic atmosphere," says Kevin Donnellan, communications manager at Cold Stone. "You always leave with a smile on your face. We think that people eat ice cream to celebrate or use it as a pick-me-up. Our crew members perform for the guests to make the experience memorable." The company is fairly young. Its history dates back to 1988, when founders Donald and Susan Sutherland established the first store in Tempe, AZ. Now, there are more than 500 franchises, and as they rapidly expand into the Northeast - a flagship store was opened in New York this past summer - there are many communications challenges. "One of our main objectives is to achieve breakthrough brand status, to become a brand that redefines a category," Donnellan says. "We draw several parallels from Starbucks, which took coffee and revolutionized the category, defining themselves as a leader. Within ice cream, we're striving to be that leader." Besides building and sustaining brand status, Cold Stone has to contend with a large population of franchisees and employees, keeping them in touch with brand sensibilities to ensure the same experience in every store. "We are a rapidly growing franchise community," Donnellan says. "You'll always be challenged making sure that everyone is kept in the loop and that the message is consistent and accurate." Then there is the issue of expansion. Cold Stone has sold the rights to 800 more franchisees and expects to open 450 stores this year. Annual sales have increased from $45 million in 2001 to $145 million to $150 million last year. Donnellan says, "We've realized opportunity in the East and the Midwest. Our flagship store in Times Square was a great chance to introduce the brand to the Northeast, and the momentum that has brought is phenomenal. I think because we're a young company, we also have the greatest opportunity to attract publicity. Our success speaks for itself." Within the company, the five-person communications group is a subset of the marketing department. Donnellan heads communications efforts, while Kim Atkinson, director of marketing communications, oversees all PR operations. PR managers Lisa Levi and Anne Christenson perform media relations, and PR coordinator Jamie Thompson works on field marketing for grand openings. The communications team is instrumental in the day-to-day operation and marketing of the Cold Stone brand. Because the majority of customers are influenced locally, yet not all local markets have a store, the company doesn't do any national advertising. "Our marketing dollars come directly from franchisees, and PR is much more cost-effective for our brand than advertising." Donnellan says. "When we look at our budgets, we don't do advertising. The bulk of it is building buzz. We also have a strong initiative in field marketing. We work very diligently with franchisees within communities." They are not, however, without help. In January, Cold Stone announced the selection of four PR agencies - New York-based Hunter Public Relations, Chicago-based Dome Communications, R&R Partners in Phoenix, and San Francisco-based Landis Communications - to assist in PR efforts in local markets throughout the country. The four shops replaced its former national agency, Golin/Harris. "We just changed strategies," Donnellan says. "We have revamped the agencies to assist with grand opening efforts on a more local level. So many of the benefits of the media come on a local level, and that assists our franchisees." Each member of the PR staff oversees a different agency, with Christenson managing the New York and San Francisco teams, Levi managing the Arizona team, and Thompson managing the Chicago team. To make sure that all of the franchisees benefit from the company's PR efforts, the in-house communications team manages an intranet to post updates, messages and news. Donnellan also produces and edits a bi-weekly internal newsletter distributed to franchisees and staff members, while keeping an eye out for possible crises. "We assist our franchisees when there is the potential of media becoming involved with negative news," says Donnellan. "We send in a team to manage the external message." In addition to internal efforts, the PR staff conducts aggressive external media relations. During the agency selection process, Cold Stone emphasized its desire for national media attention by asking finalists to brainstorm ideas for getting the brand onto well-known outlets like The Oprah Winfrey Show and the Late Show with David Letterman. Similarly, for the opening of the Times Square store, the in-house team launched a desk-side briefing throughout New York City. Staffers delivered ice cream to local and national journalists, complete with the granite stone demonstrations. "We've enjoyed a lot of very high-profile media exposure and to the point of far exceeding any expectations," Donnellan says, referring to a full-page article in Time magazine and a candid photo of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger tackling a waffle cone in a celebrity weekly. He adds, "For us as a brand, that's the type of coverage and exposure we like to see." Although the communications team sees the typical Cold Stone consumer as a woman between the ages of 24 and 35, media relations plans are devised to treat the young women's friends and families as coveted consumers, as well. "Our design and store atmosphere are geared towards an adult audience because 80% of our target audience will come in with someone else," Donnellan says. As for the year ahead, there are many unique challenges. In addition to expansion and continued brand awareness, the communications team plans to launch some aggressive marketing promotions for new products, including desk-side delivery of ice cream cakes and support of its non-fat flavor, Sinless Sweet Cream, which debuted last month. Cold Stone also will launch a promotion with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, "The World's Largest Ice Cream Social," through which stores across the country will offer free ice cream for a day, and donations will go to the charity. With work like this, a few extra pounds and the occasional brain freeze seem like manageable side effects. ----- PR contacts Communications manager Kevin Donnellan Director of communications Kim Atkinson PR managers Anne Christenson, Lisa Levi PR coordinator Jamie Thompson

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