business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

Go ahead. Indulge. It’s even okay to polish off the whole pint in one sitting.

That’s the mantra of Halo Top and a new batch of low-calorie ice creams currently disrupting the frozen dessert case. Unlike traditional ice creams that sometimes require a magnifying glass to read the calories per serving in the nutritional chart, these upstarts tout the calorie count in big, bold type on the container front.

And why not? Halo Top’s most popular flavor -- Vanilla Bean -- is 240 calories per pint, or 60 calories per half cup serving. Compare that to Haagen-Dazs Vanilla (a personal favorite) at 250 calories per half cup serving. I won’t even do the math on the pint.

Halo Top stunned competitors last year when it nabbed the best-selling spot in its niche – grocery store ice cream pints -- eclipsing industry heavyweights Haagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry’s in that category. Sales from 2015 to 2016 increased a whopping 2,500%, and just this month market researcher IRI named Halo Top the No. 1 new product for 2017 with $342 million in revenue.

My curiosity piqued, I thought I’d check out Halo Top flavors at my local supermarket. I was astounded when I saw just how many low-calorie frozen dessert products were crowding those shelves. (And I encountered strange looks when I was taking pictures of the brands I’d never seen before with my iPhone.)

Just as Chobani’s success upended the yogurt category, Halo Top’s ascendency is changing the way consumers scream for ice cream. The products are positioned as “healthy indulgences” or “guilt free” rather using the dread “diet” word. Ben & Jerry’s recently launched “Moo-phoria” light ice cream, a line of three flavors which weigh in at 140-160 calories per serving, about 50% less than its traditional flavors.

Talenti, the best-selling brand of gelato in the U.S., also introduced three new sugar-free flavors at 120 calories per serving.

Yasso, the maker of frozen Greek yogurt bars, just jumped into the pint fray with new offerings in the 100-150 calorie per half cup serving.

And Arctic Zero recently added seven new Light Ice Cream flavors (280 to 360 calories per pint) to its lineup.

Other wannabes stacked above and below the colorful Halo Top pints at my local Acme were:

Breyers Delights, a 260 to 320 calorie per pint offering from the Unilever-owned ice cream stalwart.

Enlightened, which bills itself “the good-for-you ice cream,” promoting its 60 calories per serving and added protein.

Scandal-less, a “light ice cream” promising 320 to 370 calories per pint.

Meanwhile, in Kroger country, the retailer sells its Simple Truth Low Cow Lite Ice Cream (240 to 280 calories per pint) at its stores nationwide.

While competitors can challenge Halo Top on taste and price, the Los Angeles based-creamery does have a secret ingredient – what one industry analyst called “a shrewd use of social media.”

In fact, Halo Top eschewed traditional advertising following its 2012 debut, focusing on building brand awareness through Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and reaching out to fitness and health-oriented “social media influencers.” It currently has 700,000 followers on Instagram, and pledges to have its in-house team respond to all posts from consumers.

Justin Woolverton, CEO and founder of Halo Top, has said maintaining an authentic dialogue with its customers base is a key component of the brand’s grand plan.

Which brings us finally to the taste. Halo Top has a rabid fan base, and also has outspoken detractors such as the Content Guy, who has compared it to “eating cardboard” and said that he’d rather have a couple of spoonfuls of Graeter’s than a pint of Halo Top.

So I reached out to a 20-something frozen dessert aficionado for her opinion, and she reiterated what many taste tests have found: “It works if you are trying to be skinny and want a treat… but in no way does it compare to good old ice cream.”

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