When Liza Black found out Halo Top ice cream was on sale at
ShopRite last month, she and her husband went on a mission. At one
store, they bought four pints of the Peanut Butter Cup flavor.
Then, standing in the freezer aisle of another ShopRite without a
shopping cart, Ms. Black was stacking pints up against her chest. A
nearby shopper commented to the couple that they must really like
the brand. "She grabbed a pint and walked away before I could grab
the entire freezer's worth," Ms. Black said.
At a time when it's tougher than ever for products to earn and
keep a place in the highly competitive supermarket freezer case,
pints of low-calorie, protein-packed Halo Top are selling out in
some stores, even with relatively high prices and, for now, limited
"We can't keep Halo Top on shelves, whether it's in L.A., New
York or Wyoming," said founder and CEO Justin Woolverton. His
product, labeled as light ice cream and as a good source of
protein, is sweetened with erythritol, organic cane sugar and
organic stevia. Vanilla Bean, Halo Top's best-selling flavor,
contains 60 calories and 6 grams of protein per half-cup serving.
The same size serving of Häagen-Dazs has 270 calories and 4
grams of protein.
Eat the whole Halo Top pint? That's OK. It's a relatively
guilt-free 240 calories. In fact, some varieties come with
instructions reading "Stop when you get to the bottom."
Halo Top Creamery Founder and CEO Justin Woolverton
Mr. Woolverton, 37, founded Eden Creamery in 2011 and got his
product in store freezers under that brand in June 2012. In 2013,
he changed the name to Halo Top.
There are plenty of other lower-calorie frozen treats. Arctic
Zero calls itself the pioneer of "Fit Frozen Desserts," and its
pints contain fewer calories than Halo Top. Lighter ice creams such
as Edy's Slow Churned have been around for years.
But word of mouth has propelled Halo Top's loyal following.
Sales in 2016 jumped about 2,500% from 2015, Mr. Woolverton
The brand's sales at retailers hit nearly $66.1 million in the
52 weeks ended Feb. 19, with more than 13.5 million pints sold at
an average price of $4.89, according to IRI.
That's without traditional media spending. "You can make $100 go
a lot further through, say, a Facebook ad where you can target
demographically, psychographically, geographically, et cetera, than
by taking out ad space in a newspaper," Mr. Woolverton said. "If
you can focus on people who actually want to see your ads, everyone
Kelly Nolan, head coach at Orange-
theory Fitness Roscoe Village in Chicago, said she first learned
about Halo Top from a paid post on Instagram about a year ago. She
searched for a while, then found Halo Top at Whole Foods Market.
"Ever since then, I went on a rampage," said Ms. Nolan. "It became
a hunt to try to find those flavors."
For her, a half cup of Halo Top has become a guilt-free way to
indulge. "It kind of takes the bad feeling out of it."
When Ms. Black, from the Bronx, found Halo Top on sale for $1.88
at ShopRite, she stocked up and posted a photo of her haul on
Facebook. "We're still working through it," she said.
Halo Top handles its own social media outreach and digital ads,
though as it grows it is preparing to look outside for help.
For now, its in-house marketing team goes directly to
representatives at Facebook and Google, rather than working
with a main ad agency or media agency.
"We cringe at the thought of giving canned, corporate answers to
everything. It's so boring," Mr. Woolverton said. Halo Top once
tried having agencies design ads and social media posts. That
lasted about a week. "We came to the conclusion that no one could
get our voice down as authentically as we can, so we decided to
pull it back in-house," he said.
Halo Top's Twitter feed, with nearly 20,000 followers, is
peppered with pop culture references, emojis and free-product
giveaways. So is its Facebook page, where more than 400,000 like
the brand. Then there are the thousands of fan posts tagged
#halotop on Instagram, where the company has more than 325,000
Mr. Woolverton said he aims to keep thinking like a "small brand
at heart." Social and digital outreach "will almost certainly
always be our main spends." Even so, as the brand grows, he's
considering a broader outreach plan including traditional
"We're about to reach a certain 'saturation'
point where we can do more traditional marketing—billboards,
TV spots," he said. "The downside with these traditional channels
is that it'll be harder to measure ROI, but now that people who see
the ad will actually be able to go buy Halo Top, it's an area we
have to explore."
THE SKINNY ON ERYTHRITOL
Halo Top uses a sugar alcohol called erythritol
to sweeten its products, along with organic cane sugar and organic
stevia, a plant-derived sweetener. Erythritol is said to be about
70% as sweet as sucrose. It contains about two-tenths of a calorie
per gram, while sugar contains 4 calories per gram. According to
the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, sugar alcohols are absorbed
slowly and incompletely, and produce a smaller change in blood
sugar levels than other carbohydrates. They also do not cause
cavities. Erythritol has a mild cooling effect in the mouth. And
while erythritol is called a sugar alcohol, it does not contain the
kind of alcohol in alcoholic drinks. Erythritol is a key ingredient
in the tabletop sweetener Truvia, whose marketers point out that
erythritol can be found in fruits including grapes and pears as
well as mushrooms and some fermented foods including soy sauce and
wine. - Jessica Wohl
Jessica Wohl is Ad Age's senior editor. She was most recently a senior reporter covering the food and restaurant industries for Ad Age. She also hosts the Marketer’s Brief podcast and Creativity Top 5 Live and leads the editorial team’s annual Ad Age Leading Women awards and programming. Jessica previously reported for the Chicago Tribune and Reuters.