Manufacturers are fighting back against retailers' own labels with more premium and innovative ice cream ranges. This premiumisation and differentiation is essential in order to avoid the economisation of the sector following private label's focus on traditional flavoured and low-price ice cream products. Helen Lewis reports.

After years of stagnation, and in some cases decline, the global ice cream sector is finally experiencing a long-awaited innovation revolution. According to the findings of a new, first edition report from just-food (Global market review of ice cream - forecasts to 2012), the Western European ice cream market grew by just 1.94% to US$21bn during 2005. This growth may seem negligible but, as the first year-on-year value rise since 2001, it was big news for ice cream manufacturers. Optimists see this as the start of a new and improved ice cream market bursting with innovative flavour combinations, convenient pack formats, targeted marketing and year-round sales growth.

Unilever, the second largest ice cream company in the world (behind Nestlé) views itself as a 'flavour pioneer', particularly with its Carte D'Or brand, and states that innovation is essential to future growth within the global ice cream category. The senior vice president of ice cream for Unilever, Peter ter Kulve, told just-food: "We see Carte D'Or as 'food in ice cream form'. This is why we use chefs to select the most authentic ingredients and combine them in an inspiring way".

According to the new just-food report, premiumisation is the key to unlocking future growth in ice cream. There is a growing expectation that premium ice creams, with premium prices, should be free from artificial stabilisers and additives, as standard.

Gina Hall, group marketing and product director at European ice cream manufacturer Hill Station, told just-food: "There's a growing interest in ingredients. People want to know what's in the stuff they eat. This is partly due to people's increasing concerns about allergies, which affects all products across all quality levels".

Hall explains that at the upper end of the ice cream category, which is where Hill Station sits, consumers expect "to see ingredients that they recognise and understand". Hall says: "I believe consumers expect to see things they might find in their own kitchen cupboards. People want to know that we're making our ice cream the way they'd make it themselves".

Over the next five years, people will increasingly look for the following reassurances on premium ice cream packs:
· Cream and milk sourced from one producer/farm;
· Fresh ingredients;
· If not fresh, short-shelf life pasteurised eggs;
· Whole fruits, herbs and spices.

A product that appears to have been mass-produced in a factory somewhere far away does little to appeal to today's consumer. Provenance is critical in the ice cream sector, as it provides personality and identity for products. Karin Hayhow, marketing director of Mackie's of Scotland, told just-food that the premium ice cream brand appeals to people because they know and trust the origins of the ingredients. Hayhow said: "We make our ice cream on a farm in Aberdeenshire and use real milk and cream. Many people choose our brand because they know where it is coming from. We don't have a complicated supply chain".

Going green is another strategy likely to be employed more regularly by ice cream manufacturers over the next 12 months in order to capture attention from the younger generation. Ben & Jerry's was the first ice cream to go fairtrade in the UK with the launch of Classic Vanilla in August 2006. This marked the start of what Ben & Jerry's terms a "long-term commitment to introduce Fairtrade ingredients across the full range".

As well as fairtrade, the ice cream producer switched to cage-free eggs across its US range in September 2006. The company claimed it was the first national food manufacturer to move towards a total transition to this form of production. The transition will be phased in over a four-year period.

The ethical consumer is no longer a minority or niche group but a tangible, growing target audience within the mass market. As such, many ice cream manufacturers are starting to tout their 'ethical credentials' and improve their green status. This is an ongoing strategy for Green & Black's, although the company has alluded to future plans to focus on the ethical trend within its ice cream range. Katie Selman, senior brand manager at Green & Black's, told just-food: "As we use organic produce we have to comply with certain standards of production. We are considering lots of options with our ice cream range, as we want to continue to excite our consumers. We're looking at a variety of NPD ideas which will fit with our brand values".

The growing number of small households (one to two people) in Europe means ice cream producers must strive to meet the needs of consumer groups outside of the traditional family unit. A secondary driver in the convenience megatrend is the wide range of eating occasions now prevalent worldwide including 'on the go'. Green & Black's confirmed to just-food that despite operating in the premium sector, which is mainly enjoyed at home, the brand may look to capitalise on the increasing demand for people to indulge out of the home.

Brands that have traditionally profited from the at-home, dessert and indulgent market must now consider how to exploit the convenience megatrend through new packaging formats and line extensions. Unilever's Carte D'Or range is traditionally consumed as a dessert and is usually offered in tub ranges as a result. However, according to Peter ter Kulve, senior vice president of Ice Cream for Unilever: "Carte D'Or is available from out of home scooping units that allow consumers to choose from many of their favourite flavours. Single cup portions are also available out of home, and Carte D'Or is available in other formats such as cakes and logs in some countries".

In order to curb future declines and stagnation, particularly in markets such as Germany and the Czech Republic, manufacturers must act now, and invest in innovation to provide convenient, better-for-you, ethical, and most importantly, indulgent ice creams.