Ice cream: the ultimate luxury or inconvenient and unhealthy junk food? Regardless of health concerns, premium and super-premium ice creams have carved out a niche in our freezer cabinets over the last ten years, and the sector looks set to continue its growth, says just-food.com's Hugh Westbrook.

For many of us as we grew up, the most glamorous ice cream we ever came across was a slice of Neapolitan. However, the excitement engendered by that brown, pink and yellow confection has long since disappeared as the ice cream marketplace has embraced food trends and developed along adult lines.

The sight of 500ml tubs of exotically flavoured, richly textured ice creams or frozen versions of our favourite chocolate bars is now so familiar to us, it's hard to believe that 15 years ago there was no such thing jostling for space in our freezer cabinets. But now the premium and super premium categories are growing all the time.

Euromonitor noted in its recent Global Market Overview for Ice Cream report that while the US market reported only marginal volume growth in 2000, value sales increased by nearly 4%, indicating a "consumer shift towards premium and super-premium products."

Premium or super premium?

There is no official definition for what differentiates a premium ice cream from a super premium one, although a rough definition of super premium dictates how much dairy fat should be included, a need for all-natural ingredients with nothing artificial added and a maximum air content. Häagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry's are established as super premium products globally, while others market their product under that label. With no official regulation, producers are able to use the label as they wish. In any case, to the average consumer the difference between premium and super premium is not hugely significant.

Many established food and lifestyle trends have led to the establishing of high quality ice cream ranges. Reemah Sakaan, the senior brand manager for Häagen-Dazs in the UK, told just-food.com that in the past, ice cream had "always been about kids. It was a low-quality frozen product that was basically whipped up fat. Consumers didn't perceive there was a gap and the creation of quality products was not in response to anything." However, once quality came on the market in the early 1990s, the uptake was swift.

Sakaan explained that the key driver behind a product such as Häagen-Dazs is that it is an indulgence product, often just shared by two people, and is not really, for example, a dinner party product. "It also appeals to consumers who prefer to eat on the hoof," she added.

She explained that the market was growing all the time, with constant innovation important. "The pace of innovation means that there is a continual cycle of flavours. New ideas come from taste tests and watching the market to see what the current indulgence drivers are."

She added that offering products in different sizes is also a way for the market to grow. As well as launching the Banoffee flavour this year, Häagen-Dazs will also be launching a product called Minissime, a small bite-sized 'treat' to go alongside their 100ml minicups and standard 500ml tubs.

Ben & Jerry's - an antidote to seriousness?

Ben & Jerry's challenges Häagen-Dazs for supremacy in the super premium sector. Already well established in the US, the Unilever subsidiary's UK operation is booming, with sales growing by 38% in 2001. Product growth strategies are similar, focusing on the development of new flavours and formats, though the company tries to position itself at the 'fun' end of the market with a philosophy of being an 'antidote to seriousness'.

Aside from these two, the UK has a number of localised premium ice cream makers. Many are localised operations, but some have managed to establish a national presence. One of the most successful is Hill Station, which has adopted a policy of aligning tropical flavours, such as toasted coconut and dark rum, with British dairy products. The company has been operating fully since 1997 and has already penetrated supermarkets and delicatessens, as well as establishing a presence in Belgium.

American Charles Hall founded the company with his wife Gina. He told just-food.com that he had seen a gap in the market. "There was no one dominant player in the UK," he said. "They were all regional and farm-based. But the UK probably has the best dairy industry in the world and we built on that.

Expert Analysis

The Global Market for Ice Cream
Comprehensive strategic analysis of the latest trends in the market & overview of 4 product sectors (impulse ice cream, take-home ice cream, frozen yoghurts and artisanal ice cream). Sales analysed world/regional levels and in over 50 individual countries for 1996-2000 with forecasts to 2005. Ice cream developments are also examined at a key player level for: Diageo Plc, Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream, Mars Inc, Meiji Dairies Corp, Nestlé, Unilever Group

 
"It's an extension of what Häagen-Dazs did. There are unusual flavours that are sophisticated, they are less sweet than normal ice cream because there is less sugar in them, and they are aimed at the adult market. Häagen-Dazs had to be there first. They created the segment."

Western Europe driving ahead - but Italy tough to crack

Outside the UK, similar patterns are apparent, especially across the US, which boasts the most developed market for premium ice cream, and Western Europe. Euromonitor's report identifies certain basic facts that are contributing to this, such as increasing numbers of home freezers. Western Europe had 22% of volume sales in 2000 but 28% of value sales, which the research association attributed to "consumer preference for premium, adult-oriented indulgence ice creams." However, the report said this trend was minor in emerging economies such as Greece and Turkey.

One market that all the premium ice-cream makers might find hard to crack is Italy, because ice cream there is such a way of life. Italians have been brought up on a diet of gelato, which is much lighter than a typical super premium product, making the country more difficult. Häagen-Dazs' Sakaan commented: "Italy is an education job as well as a sales job. The concept is alien to Italians and any brand which can crack the market has to be sure of itself."

So what can we expect in the future as the ice cream market continues to develop? All those in the sector expect it to continue to grow, driven in part by new niche flavours and pack sizes. New launches always generate a good initial response, but makers of super premium ice cream have demonstrated that the quality of their products tends to lead to repeat purchases. So long as consumers have money to spend on indulgence products, the sector will continue to thrive.

By Hugh Westbrook, just-food.com correspondent