Burrowed behind Ben and Jerry's ice cream factory in Waterbury, Vermont lies a graveyard. At first glance, the graveyard may seem ordinary--it's lined with scores of headstones and encapsulated by a white picket fence. Look closer, though, and you'll realize that this graveyard is not your typical burial ground. Headstones are dedicated not to humans, but instead to ice cream varieties. This is Ben and Jerry's Flavor Graveyard, erected to honor the company's failed and retired ice cream flavors.
While it may seem like little more than a bizarre tourist attraction (attracting 300,000 "mourners" each year, according to the company), the Flavor Graveyard has much greater significance. Unbeknownst to many, the necropolis serves several important functions that have empowered Ben and Jerry's to mature from its humble roots, ward off competitors, remain relevant, and maintain its position as an industry leader in premium ice cream.
Encouraging Psychological Safety
Ben and Jerry's is renowned for its outrageous flavor offerings. Bernie's Yearning was created in honor of Bernie Sanders and Miz Jelena's Sweet Potato Pie was the company's "attempt to recreate a treasured southern side dish as a delectable pint."
How does Ben and Jerry's task force of "flavor gurus" consistently come up with new flavors? They take bold risks and seek inspiration in the strangest of places (one employee attested to being inspired by a YouTube video detailing how tennis balls are manufactured).
From a business perspective, the Flavor Graveyard serves an important function. It's a constant reminder to Flavor Gurus that it's okay to make mistakes and fail. Mistakes are viewed as natural by-products of the flavor innovation process. The company website explains, "We don't think of these flavor flops as failures. Far from it--we think of them as necessary steps on the way to flavor greatness."
When organizations like Ben and Jerry's promote a tolerance with respect to errors, they encourage a "psychologically safe" environment. Psychological safety is a shared belief that when we make well-intentioned mistakes, we won't be punished or made to feel embarrassed. Google has identified psychological safety as the most powerful predictor of successful teams. Psychological safety encourages risk taking and leads to innovate outputs.
One flavor guru explained in a company blog post, "We've tried it all, and we've tried some really bad stuff, but I think ranch dip is the worst I've heard of." If employees fear making mistakes or are uncertain about how mistakes will be received, they'll dodge risk in an attempt to avoid making mistakes. Without psychological safety, innovation potential is likely to remain six feet under.
Increasing Brand Engagement
When Ben and Jerry's flavors are "de-pinted" and put to rest in the Flavor Graveyard, they are credited with an epitaph that summarizes the life and death of the flavor. Consider Aloha Macadamia's (2002-2003) epitaph:
"We won't blame the macadamia
But we were kinda in denial
The Marketplace had spoken:
Mac got aloha'ed off the aisle."
The clever epitaphs that accompany every failed flavor go a long way in terms of conceptualizing ice cream flavors as something far greater than mere conglomerates of ingredients. They offer up personas that strike chords with consumers and enable them to better connect with different flavors--and ultimately the Ben and Jerry's brand. Consumers view the ice cream eating experience as something special and meaningful.
Enhancing Product Development
A rendition of the Flavor Graveyard also exists in a virtual incarnation on the company's website, where consumers can make the case for resurrecting a favorite flavor. Tracking and evaluating consumer input related to favorite failed ice cream flavors enables Ben and Jerry's to adopt a more informed approach to product development, while sparing themselves of costly market research expenditures.
Consider the flavor Holy Cannoli, which resided on grocery store shelves for only a year before being retired to the Flavor Graveyard. Because public outcry in the aftermath of its retirement was so strong, the company decided to tweak the recipe and "reincarnate" the flavor.
In 2012, Ben and Jerry's released a new take on the flavor, naming it "Cannoli." The company explained, "We made a cannoli flavor with ricotta before and it bombed. It was called Holy Cannoli. This is a new take on it and we think it tastes better than Holy Cannoli did. We hope you do too!"
It's unlikely that when Ben and Jerry's first erected the flavor graveyard in 1997 it realized how much impact it could have. Indeed, when the original graveyard was constructed, it had only four sites: Dastardly Mash, Economic Crunch, Ethan Almond, and Tuskegee Chunk.
Today, it's grown in terms of both numbers and organizational significance by encouraging psychological safety, brand engagement, and product development. We'd all do well to take a lick from Ben and Jerry's Flavor Graveyard.