Blue Bell Ice Cream Is Back
BRENHAM, TX: As it works to reclaim its abandoned market share, Blue Bell ice cream will have to rely on the passion of its fans and the company’s ability to cut deals with retailers.
Experts in marketing and grocery store economics predict that the Texas ice cream brand, pulled from shelves in April following a listeria outbreak, will regain much of its sales heft.
That growth will be fueled largely by the fierce loyalty of the faithful, including four sleep-deprived shoppers who showed up at a Tom Thumb on Lovers Lane near Greenville Avenue at 3:30 a.m. Monday to welcome Blue Bell back to North Texas.
About 30 customers were lined up by about 4:15 a.m. at a 24-hour Kroger location in Denton to await the delivery truck’s arrival, a spokesman said.
For months, Blue Bell’s most fervent fans in North Texas have endured a steady diet of dreams deferred. In Monday’s pre-dawn chill, the wait finally ended.
“We may have Blue Bell ice cream for breakfast for the next week,” said Melissa Rieman of University Park. By 7:30 a.m. she already had been to two Tom Thumb locations looking for Blue Bell, with 11-year-old daughter Riley in tow. An excited cheer and spontaneous applause meant she’d hit pay dirt at the Tom Thumb on Lovers Lane.
“We were sad to go the summer without it,” she said.
Monday marked an important juncture along Blue Bell’s comeback trail. The Brenham-based ice cream maker is planning a five-phase rollout, and Monday was the start of phase two, which includes North Texas, Waco and parts of Oklahoma.
Phase two includes more retail outlets than phase one, which began in late August. The experience in North Texas will provide a strong indication of whether the reboot is gaining momentum.
And since Blue Bell plans to cut its market size from parts of 23 states before the recall to parts of 15 states at full rollout, each remaining area now counts for a larger slice of the total revenue pie.
Marketing experts have compared the Blue Bell comeback with the 1980s case in which seven consumers died after taking tainted Tylenol.
Diane Fannon, a principal with the Richards Group, sees two key differences: Fans like the Riemans and social media.
‘Huge fan base’:
Blue Bell has “such a huge fan base and so many fan advocates,” Fannon said, noting that those boosters are helping drive positive messages about the brand across social media.
While Tylenol “had a strong brand, they did not have raving ambassadors like Blue Bell has,” she said. “I don’t think anybody said, ‘Oh, my gosh, I love Tylenol.’
“There aren’t that many things that you get that excited about, and I think that’s happening all across Texas as Blue Bell comes back.”
Excitement about the product Monday extended to the delivery team.
“I’ve had a couple hugs,” said Blue Bell driver Gahlen Thomas. “It’s been nice to come back.”
Blue Bell’s second crucial constituency is retailers.
As a team of four Blue Bell workers pulled into the loading dock at the Timber Creek Crossing Wal-Mart about 5:30 a.m. Monday, store manager Paul Strunc spoke of the drawing power of the brand.
“Blue Bell has always been one of the more popular brands,” said Strunc, as the delivery team neatly filled an empty cooler with half-gallon cartons of Buttered Pecan, Cookies ’n Cream, Dutch Chocolate, Homemade Vanilla and The Great Divide. “It has always done very well with Wal-Mart.”
The space allocated to the five Blue Bell flavors now being produced is about the same as the pre-recall space, a spokeswoman said. Other brands, inclduing store brands, were moved to make room.
At Kroger, “we actually increased space for the reintroduction,” said spokesman Gary Huddleston.
A spokeswoman for Blue Bell described the company as “amazed and humbled by the grocer and consumer support.”
“Many shared stories about growing up eating Blue Bell,” said Jenny Van Dorf. “It really has been a lot of fun.”
Craig Rosenblum, a partner with the Willard Bishop retail consulting firm, noted that ice cream is popular with retailers because it moves off the shelf quickly and has higher profit margins than other items.
Still, he assumes Blue Bell had to do some horse trading before retailers laid out the welcome mat.
“Retailers had filled in that space over time,” he said. “What is it going to cost [Blue Bell] to support the retailer’s transition back to what we once had?
“I can’t imagine that there’s not going to be some sort of agreement to say, from the retailer’s perspective, ‘Make it up to us to some degree for some of the pain that’s been caused.’”
That could come in the form of price concessions that allow retailers to place the ice cream on sale, which would in turn draw more consumers.
Not counting the skeptics, who also have spoken up on social media, many consumers want to see Blue Bell succeed.
That’s not surprising to Brad McCormick, chief digital officer at Moroch, a Dallas-based marketing and communications agency.
“People love turnarounds,” McCormick said. “People want to root for the underdog.”
So for Blue Bell, “it’s about focusing on those people. Find your fans, find the people who are a little skeptical but they want to come back to the brand,” he said. “People want a reason to trust this brand again.”
Staff writer Christina Cox contributed to this report.
A leaner ice cream maker:
Distribution before the recall: Parts of 23 states
Distribution after the recall: Parts of 15 states (There is no plan to return to Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, New Mexico, Nevada and Virginia.)
Flavors produced before the recall: At least 40, including seasonal offerings
Flavors produced now: Five — Buttered Pecan, Cookies ’n Cream, Dutch Chocolate, Homemade Vanilla and The Great Divide