Even the most cookie dough-loaded ice cream won’t get Americans as excited as this flavor: $0.00.
Just look at the hype around Dairy Queen’s Monday deal for free ice cream in celebration of the chain’s 75th anniversary. The promotion generated plenty of buzz despite a nationwide scare over tainted ice cream that occurred only a few days earlier. But ice cream store owners might tell you that the buzz isn’t due to a national loyalty to the sweet dessert.
Of the top U.S. ice cream chains, only Dairy Queen has seen steady increases in its sales over the last 10 years, according to sales estimates by food industry research firm Technomic — though it’s also the only ice cream company with an extensive menu beyond the sweet stuff. Meanwhile, rival chains like Baskin-Robbins and Cold Stone Creamery are in decline as consumers turn towards healthier options like frozen yogurt, whose self-serve setups allow better control over price.
While offering promotional freebies can be a way to attract new customers, not every ice cream chain can afford that kind of a stunt. “The word ‘free’ probably has the strongest meaning in marketing, in terms of consumer behavior,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic. “When you’re talking about Dairy Queen, you have a soft serve product, which is generally going to be be less expensive than a scooped product. It’s a more expensive push for other brands that are more premium, who may not get the most bang for their giveaway.”
Free ice cream deals are actually pretty rare — the country’s only regular special is Ben & Jerry’s annual Free Cone Day. But costs aren’t the only thing keeping the number of freebies down. Ben & Jerry’s event, for example, shows they might not be effective in encouraging people to return for a second, paid visit.
In 2014, search interest in Ben & Jerry’s was largely flat, except for a spike in April during Free Cone Day. That spike overshadowed a smaller spike in February corresponding to the release of new flavors, according to Google Trends data. Moreover, Ben & Jerry’s doesn’t seem to be a hot search topic during the summer months, when searches for ice cream or other big-name ice cream brands tend to peak every year:
Estimates of Ben & Jerry’s annual U.S. sales also indicate that Free Cone Day hasn’t been able to keep sales from declining. The chain’s number of U.S. stores has also fallen:
But all this doesn’t mean Dairy Queen’s free ice cream special isn’t going to help boost the company’s sales. What makes Dairy Queen special is its deep roots in American culture — after all, it is the company’s 75th anniversary, a milestone not all ice cream chains reach.
“The long standing position as the category leader really helps — when you have memories of going to Dairy Queen as a kid, you build that brand affinity from an early age,” says Sam Oches, editor of QSR Magazine, which publishes quick-serve restaurant research. “Dessert is just something that has a sort of down-home traditional feel to it, something that elicits good memories, not just a meal that you have to grab on the run.”