It’s hard to believe that anything could challenge the likes of Häagen-Dazs or Ben & Jerry’s as giants of the ice cream world.

But in the summer of 2017, Halo Top, the ‘healthy’ ice cream brand, became the number-one selling pint of ice cream in the US. Since then, the brand has gone on to enjoy steady sales growth, and successful expansion into the UK and Canada.

So, how has Halo Top managed to shake up the industry? Here’s more on its rapid rise to success, and the marketing strategy behind it.

Pioneer of a new product

Before we get on to the marketing behind Halo Top, it’s important to note the innovation of the product itself – and how Halo Top has succeeded in carving out its own niche category of ‘healthy’ ice cream.

Of course, this concept is not entirely unique; there has always been a variety of ‘diet’ or ‘lighter’ products from FMCG brands in the supermarket. However, this has typically been yogurt or confectionery, making ‘healthy’ ice cream a market-first for Halo Top.

Alongside introducing a new product – which was borne out of co-founder, Justin Woolverton’s search for a low-sugar way to satisfy his sweet tooth – Halo Top has managed to generate interest through its positioning. This is less about being ‘holier-than-thou’ through healthy eating, and more about allowing yourself indulgences without the dreaded guilt. Halo Top has less fat and sugar than traditional ice cream, plus added protein.

As well as slogans such as ‘guilt-free zone’ and ‘no bowl, no regrets’, each product proudly displays the total amount of calories per-tub, making it both eye-catching and appealing to consumers.

Halo Top’s success – which in 2017 saw it become the fastest-selling food brand in the US – has been cemented by the arrival of imitators, both from new brands as well as mainstream companies like Ben & Jerry’s. Alongside Ben & Jerry’s ‘Moo-phoria’ range, Unilever has also launched Culture Republik, a ‘better for you’ alternative that includes probiotic cultures as well as lower-calorie ingredients.

Halo Top’s success has given rise to increased competition, but it is also the brand’s wider strategy (more of that to follow) that has helped to cement its place in supermarket shelves and ensure steady sales, over and above its rivals.

Instagram & influencer strategy

Like most challenger brands, Halo Top mostly focuses on digital channels to generate awareness of its brand and product. It initially chose to shun traditional media spend, investing its budget into targeted ads on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram instead.

Alongside this, influencer marketing has been an important strategy, which it has used to reach its target market, mostly consisting of a millennial and health and fitness-conscious audience.

This strategy initially involved reaching out to a number of relatively small and medium-sized fitness influencers, and asking them to sample the ice cream or offer a discount code to their followers. Speaking to Marketing Week, co-founder Douglas Boulton explains: “For us, an influencer was not some big celebrity we were going to pay $1m. We defined it internally as somebody who had at least 1,000 followers and got 100 likes a post and a couple of comments… It was really effective, organic strategy that built up this evangelical fanbase.”

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NEW @halotopuk platinum series! Which one are you picking?! Swipe for individual shots and videos. All 3 of these new flavours were extra rich and creamy and they had decent amounts of mix-ins. The monster cookie had a delicious peanut butter swirl and was full of cookie and candy pieces, the triple chocolate cake had a rich chocolate fudge sauce and cake pieces and the space candy tasted of CANDY FLOSS and was studded with popping candy! Found these in @sainsburys if you’re interested ???? #food #foodie #foodgasm #foodporn #icecream #icecreams #dessert #desserts #dessertporn #yummy #iifym #flexibledieting #pint #chocolate #healthy #newfood #heaven #halotop #cookies #junkfood #recovery #icecreams #foodreview #candy #chocolatelover #foodstagram #hungry #eatingfortheinsta #cheatmeal #diet #peanutbutter

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This slow but steady word-of-mouth worked, too, with Halo Top’s approach helping to generate a large following on Instagram. On the back of its influencer strategy, Halo Top saw sales in 2016 jump around 2,500%. Since, the brand has gone on to amass 729,000 followers on its main US channel, and over 86,000 on its UK channel. Now, Halo Top leans less on influencers, and instead uses its fun and vibrant approach to Instagram to also appeal to a wider audience, not just millennials.

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It’s also worth noting that – while its own social media strategy has been successful – Halo Top has also enjoyed a little bit of luck, which came in the form of a viral news story. In 2016, a GQ journalist wrote about what happened when he ate nothing but Halo Top for 10 days. The answer (and huge bonus for the brand) was that he actually lost weight. Of course, Halo Top has never endorsed the article, or encouraged people to consume large quantities of its product. However, it certainly helped to raise the brand’s profile, and its promise of not being entirely unhealthy.

Clever distribution & relevant marketing

New and challenger brands in the consumer goods industry tend to rely on outsourced manufacturing to be able to keep costs relatively low and still scale up.

Halo Top is no different, also relying on this strategy to expand in countries outside of the US. Its partnership with Brand of Brothers has allowed it to expand in Europe, particularly helping it to secure fast and efficient distribution in the UK. This means that Halo Top is now sold in the UK’s big four supermarkets, as well as smaller chains such as Budgens and Londis. Again, this has helped to raise its profile among consumers, with its bold and recognisable branding also allowing it to stand out on supermarket shelves.

Another important element of Halo Top’s marketing it that it has been careful not to simply replicate its American efforts in other markets, instead taking time to create digital content that speaks to local audiences. This has also involved some PR-style marketing, with the brand creating a bespoke ice cream flavour for the UK called ‘Lemon Wedding Cake’, created in homage to the cake chosen by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

More recently, the brand created an experiential campaign called ‘Bank of Halo Top’ for the launch of its new ‘Platinum Series’. This involved setting up an ATM (or Automated Toppings Machine) in London to dispense toppings for the new ‘Platinum Series’ tubs and sticks.

Meanwhile in the US, the brand’s success has allowed it to further invest in paid media, recently creating a national TV ad campaign which cements its original message to consumers: To enjoy as much ice cream as you want, but without the guilt. Using a bleak and deadpan comedic tone – it’s yet another example of Halo Top challenging the traditional (and overly sunny) style of mainstream ice cream brands.

Social Media Advertising – Best Practice Guide