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QSR Interview | By Sherri Daye Scott

Remaining Relevant
Sixty-year-old Baskin-Robbins is now competing in a market where super-premium ice cream is attracting all the attention. In response, the chain has a new look, new menu, and new strategy. Brand manager Ken Kimmel elaborates.
This is a shortened version of an interview that appears in the February 2006 issue of QSR. To get the full QSR interview delivered to your door twelve times per year, subscribe to QSR.

How has Baskin Robbins’s brand mission changed over the past 60 years?

When Jon Luther came onboard [as CEO] three years ago, he encouraged us to identify the “brand heartbeat.” We identified our brand heartbeat as being “irresistible treats, smile, and fun.”

Over the past 60 years, I don’t think the brand’s heartbeat has changed at all. What changes over time is how that heartbeat has maintained its relevance to consumers.

How has the entrance of players like Cold Stone and Marble Slab affected the frozen treat business?

Competition tends to help build business within any category. It helps keep us on our toes; it makes us look very carefully at our consumers. But, fundamentally, I think we’re in a different business.

Elaborate.

Our competitors are pushing this mix-in experience, a higher-price theater experience. Baskin-Robbins is focused on delivering innovation, high-quality ice cream flavors, and a great value for our consumers in an accessible kind of environment.

While 31 flavors was a big idea 60 years ago, it is seen as a cost of entry today. We’ve been focusing on products as opposed to the theater of the business.

Our Cappuccino Blast was the first frozen coffee beverage in the market. Starbucks gets credit for building the frozen coffee business, but we introduced the Cappuccino Blast ahead of not only other ice cream competitors but also our coffee competitors. Bold Breezes, which we introduced last year, is a product platform based on fruit-based beverages with a real powerful flavor profile. It’s relevant to younger consumers. And our upcoming introduction of frozen custard is really our way of saying, “How do we do something different?”

These are product platforms that are unique, as opposed to the process and theater some of our competitors use as a differentiating point.

But isn’t a bit of theater incorporated into the new design?

That’s where the customer helps drive the way you implement and execute your brand around your strategic heartbeat. Customers want to be able to look at you and smile, to watch how their sundaes are being created.

Developing a store design that allows [workers] to maintain a face-forward position and not turn their back on customers helps us deliver what we’ve always delivered in a way that consumers find much more appealing.

Have the expectations of treat customers changed over the years, then?

The sophistication of our consumers has changed. Today’s customers, whether treat or otherwise, are much more demanding about the hospitality experience. They’re much more demanding about being able to get what they want when they want it. Having a wide variety of products for them to choose from is very important.

We’ve developed a whole line of signature sundaes and products built around our custard platform. If one of our customers comes in and asks, “Can you make that with pralines and cream, my favorite flavor?” our answer is always, “Absolutely!”

My dad, who lives in Southern California, was in a Baskin-Robbins and said, “Gee, I don’t see chocolate sodas on the menuboard. Can you make that?” They could. He called me and said, “It’s been a really long time since I had a chocolate soda. It was terrific.”

Our competitors are pushing this mix-in experience, a higher-price theater experience.”

When did Baskin-Robbins begin noticing the trend toward the more sophisticated customer?

Probably in the mid-’80s, but that’s just my view of the world. The pace has certainly accelerated over the last 10 years.

Describe the new look of Baskin-Robbins. What do you hope to convey to customers?

The brand has not changed. Some of the things we’re doing to deliver the Baskin-Robbins experience have changed. The décor is more energized, more engaging for our consumers. What we’ve done is made the place more relevant and more contemporary, which consumers expect.

When you look at the new Baskin-Robbins concept, there aren’t legacies of the old design. It retains the Baskin-Robbins’s personality and heartbeat, but it doesn’t look like a facelift. It looks like something new is going on.

The colors are fabulous. The design element that we call our pink crown gives a nice focal point and leverages the pink equity that we have from our pink spoons.

There are brands that are no longer around that could have been as old as Baskin-Robbins that weren’t aware of the need to remain contemporary, remain relevant. [We] stretched to find folks who wouldn’t be tied to the past.

We want to be sure we’re putting as much of our resources in front of the consumer as we can. Moving to hardtop finishes on the table, moving to chairs that don’t necessarily look like the typical restaurant chair was a big part of this.

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