In 2011, the Tip Top team was struck by the harsh realisation that 150 of its products contained palm oil. And while this ingredient had fantastic technical properties, it was also the subject of major controversy due to the way it is harvested. Slavery, deforestation, exploitation and animal endangerment were just some of the problems that were often associated with the palm oil industry, and Kiwis were starting to notice and no longer wanted any involvement with these dubious dealings.
At the time, Tip Top used to receive at least two letters from consumers each month, expressing disappointment that Tip Top ice creams contained palm oil or artificial colours. The worst correspondence came from the nation’s primary school classrooms and included drawings of the tropical birds that kids thought might become extinct due to the deforestation in Indonesia. The company even received a petition demanding change from a prominent Auckland high school with over 500 signatures attached.
And kids weren’t the only ones becoming more interested in the contents of our food. Shows like What’s really in our food?, social media commentary, and investigative reports in the media were exposing the truth behind ingredients on a daily basis, and consumers were starting to show a strong preference for sustainable, natural ingredients.
The marketing team at Tip Top felt that this trend was likely to proliferate and thus posed a major longterm risk to profitability. So the company decided to remove palm oil and synthetic flavours and colours from all its ice cream recipes. But this was easier said than done, because the 150 products that needed to change didn’t always rely on a single recipe. It wasn’t only the ice cream that needed to change; it was everything that went with it. For instance, when it came to reworking the recipe for the Memphis Meltdown Big Hokey, Tip Top would have to change two ice-creams, a caramel ripple, the coating on the hokey pokey and the chocolate shell. Making this change even more challenging was the fact that the controversies surrounding the palm oil industry was only an emerging issue in the European market—meaning that global suppliers found it difficult to understand why Tip Top would update a system that was working and profitable.
Over its 77-year history, Kiwi ice cream lovers have come to see the Tip Top range as a reliable hit for the sweet tooth. The taste and flavours of the different ice creams were well-known, and Kiwis had a certain expectation when they purchased a Tip Top ice cream. And by changing the composition of its products, Tip Top risked losing customers on account of the flavours changing.
To ensure that customers weren’t pushed away by the changes, Tip Top dedicated almost two years of research and development budget to create the new recipes for its various products. Since the use of palm oil was so pervasive in the industry at the time, there was little or no research on using alternative fats, which in turn meant that Tip Top had to pioneer in the field. And in certain instances it became the first company in the world to use some ingredients developed in conjunction with suppliers.
But placing all this focus on developing new recipes for old products meant that new product development was put on the back burner for two years. And for a company with a history of releasing new products in time for summer, this was a significant risk, especially because Unilever, its multi-national competitor, could roll out new global products in the local market at any stage.
Despite high risk of losing sales in the short term, Tip Top felt that it was a necessary move to ensure longer-term growth and to mitigate the potential of much more significant future risk. After spending two years in the lab developing the new flavours, Tip Top initially wanted to launch a loud and aggressive marketing campaign. But given that the company had evolved its offering, it decided instead to launch something that showed this coming of age. The creative used during the campaign aimed to tell the story through the eyes of the company growing up in New Zealand and recognising the importance of going ‘back to nature’.As the various products in the range were updated, Tip Top released new packaging so that consumers could easily identify which flavours had changed.
In supermarkets there was thorough sampling plans and consumer promotions themed to its natural messaging. In the route channel, it downplayed the messaging a little to POS on freezers, but ensured out of home advertising on the path to key customers had the natural messaging at peak selling times of the year. It also updated some of its livery, such as pavement blades, flags, menu boards and pop up parlours with the natural colours and flavours message. This was consolidated online, with the website being updated sporadically as additional flavours were added to the growing list of ice creams with new, more natural recipes.
In addition to using television and online advertising, Tip Top also embarked on its biggest PR campaign for many years, meeting with food industry journalists and opinion leaders. This media attention quickly attracted mainstream attention, which saw the Tip Top story feature on One News, various radio broadcasts and in print—and the vast majority of this coverage was positive.
While most marketing initiatives are measurable in terms of their immediate ROI figures, Tip Top’s decision to change the recipes of its entire range cannot be quantified in monetary terms. This move came as a long-term investment in the future of the company, but a survey showed that customers who thought Tip Top was more natural than other brands rose from 11 to 15 percent, those who saw it as the brand with the best value for money increased from 33 to 40 percent, those who thought it was worth paying more for went up from 16 to 20 percent, the proportion who saw it as the creamiest ice cream went from 22 to 31 percent, and overall brand momentum climbed from 64 to 66 percent. At the time of writing, Tip Top had updated 147 of its 150 recipes, and in almost all instances customers could not taste the difference between the new recipes and those that contained palm oil and artificial ingredients. The industry also applauded the new recipes by handing out more gold and silver gongs to the company at the annual NZ Ice Cream Awards than it had received in its history.
The greatest win, however, has been for the environment. Tip Top’s commitment to sustainability has removed over 170 tonnes of palm oil per annum from supply, which is the equivalent of several rugby fields of jungle each year—an achievement the Tip Top marketing team celebrated by personally writing back to the previously concerned Kiwi schools to let them know that the company had made the requested change.