Mamma Mia! Americans Finally Embrace Gelato

Once an Urban Niche, the Italian Treat Is Going Mainstream

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Here's a scoop: Gelato, the Italian-style ice cream long enjoyed in Europe, is finally poised for a breakthrough in the U.S.

Mainstream food makers from Nestle to Unilever are putting significant marketing dollars behind their relatively new gelato brands as they jump on what appears to be one of the hottest crazes in frozen desserts.

Breyers, which is owned by Unilever, introduced "Gelato Indulgences" earlier this year, marking the brand's first entrant into the segment in the States. The roll-out "is our most significant food launch in Unilever this year, so our marketing plan is crafted as such," said Nick Soukas, the marketer's director of ice cream. TV ads, which are by DDB, New York, target parents and position the gelato for the "ultimate date night." Recent spots were customized to run during NBC's "Parenthood" by referencing episode plots.

Haagen-Dazs Gelato
Haagen-Dazs Gelato

Meanwhile, Nestle-owned Haagen-Dazs this month expanded its one-year-old gelato line with new flavors including caramelized banana chip and pomegranate swirl. The marketer, which spent $16.2 million in measured media on gelato last year, according to Kantar Media, has boosted the budget this year, said Joy Richardson, Nestle USA's associate brand manager for Haagen-Dazs. Sales reached roughly $40 million in the past year, according to the brand.

Both marketers are chasing scrappy upstart Talenti, a privately held gelato brand that launched as a stand-alone store in Dallas in 2001 and has grown into a national grocery brand with expectations of more than $160 million in sales this year, including distribution at 7-Eleven and Walmart. Talenti -- which has visions of becoming the Chobani of the ice cream world -- recently launched its first-ever ad campaign, a digital effort by Fallon Worldwide, Minneapolis that includes videos touting the ingredients in Talenti's 26 flavors.

Gelato is typically more dense than regular ice cream because it contains less of the air (known as "overrun") that is added in standard ice-cream making. Also, gelato has more milk than cream, which makes for less fat than regular ice cream. But beware, this is not a diet food: the Breyers triple chocolate gelato flavor includes 23% of the daily value of saturated fat per serving.

Brand executives cited consumer mobility as one factor driving the trend. "More and more people are traveling internationally. They are getting exposure to these delicious treats," Mr. Soukas said. "They come back, and they are looking for that similar experience." Gelato shops are popping up all around the country, he added, "not just in New York City anymore."

Gelato, as of 2013, still had a relatively low consumer penetration rate of 15% and is mostly popular with upper-income consumers, as well as younger buyers, said Beth Bloom, a food and drinks analyst for Mintel. But all the elements are there for future growth, including an "artisan treat feel" that more consumers are seeking, she said.

Haagen-Dazs first tested gelato in the U.S. in 1998, but Americans were apparently not ready yet and the effort melted. This time, the marketer has been careful to balance classic Italian flavors like stracciatella with trendy contemporary flavors such as sea salt caramel. A TV ad that debuted last year by Goodby, Silverstein & Partners and was shot in Rome, looks like a scene out of the "The Godfather," featuring an Italian couple fighting, only to take a brief loving pause over some spoons of gelato.

Just a few years after Haagen-Dazs' ill-fated test, Talenti was founded by Josh Hochschuler, who opened his Dallas gelateria after falling in love with gelato while working for an investment bank in Argentina, where he learned the craft from an Italian gelato-maker in Buenos Aires. The brand began taking off after it got an investment from executives at Phillips Distilling Co., which is known for pioneering the luxury vodka category in the U.S. with Belvedere Vodka, a brand it later sold.

Talenti "very much embodied what we saw in Belvedere from the very beginning, which was a way to create a new category with differentiated package and an extraordinary product," said Dean Phillips, former CEO of Phillips Distributing and current chairman and co-owner of Talenti.

Talenti comes in see-through pints and screw-off lids and is made with ingredients including fresh milk -- rather than powdered -- and pure cane sugar. The name is taken from Bernardo Buontalenti, a 16th Century Italian artist who legend has it was the inventor of modern-day gelato. Gelato's true origins are mysterious.

Even as Talenti spends more mass-market ad money, the brand is trying to keep its grassroots appeal through one-to-one marketing.

"One of our strategies is when you love us, we love you back. We very actively monitor every single post to our social media sites," Mr. Phillips said. At least once a week, the brand selects one fan post and sends a custom response, which often includes a package in the mail.


Recently one fan, who called himself an "art dad," posted an image on Instagram showing an empty pint of Talenti being used as a water container for a painting project. In response, Talenti sent him some paint in custom Talenti-branded packaging, while noting in an Instagram post that the "delicious color goes on the canvas, not in the tummy."

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