Halo Top has emerged as one of the biggest consumer phenomenons in recent years. Its devoted fan base is snapping up as much low-calorie high protein ice cream as stores can stock, leading Halo Top to become the top-selling pint of ice cream in the United States, surpassing longtime industry stalwarts Häagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry's, and to be named one of Time Magazine's top inventions of 2017.

Still, Halo Top's path to the top has been a bit untraditional. Until recently, Halo Top did almost no advertising, and the team continues to forgo a traditional office, working remotely and out of a shared coworking space. Perhaps most interestingly, the brand raised hardly any equity funding. The only equity they raised was on CircleUp in 2013 and 2015, with two modest rounds.

Halo Top shows no signs of slowing down, so the timing seems right to look inside their growth and explore the factors that led to success.

Product

Product differentiation is necessary, but alone not sufficient, for success. Halo Top knew from the beginning that their product was unique. Their pitch on our marketplace read: "Halo Top ice cream is not only low-calorie, it is the right kind of low-calorie for today's shopper: high in protein and low in sugar and fat while maintaining a decadent taste."

Big ice cream players like Nestle or Unilever were releasing a lot of new products at this time in an attempt to capture market share from private label brands, but they were releasing products largely in the form of new flavors or light versions of existing flavors. Halo Top was offering something totally different.

That said, Halo Top was not without competition in the better-for-you market. Arctic Zero was founded in 2010, Enlightened Ice Cream was founded in 2013, and low-fat frozen yogurt franchises such as Pinkberry and Red Mango had already hit big strides in the food service space. And while Halo Top had the right product from the beginning, a few things would have to fall in place before it truly took off.   

Brand

In 2013, Halo Top's brand was the area that clearly had the most room for improvement. There were  some promising signs--the name "Halo Top" was catchy, and the product's surprising nutritional information was featured prominently on the packaging.

But the overall impression was a bit muddy. Halo Top's early logo was much more elaborate in style than the snappy and simple logo it has today. And its packaging threatened to overwhelm consumers with an abundance of too much information.

Look at the package for as long as you would look at ice cream on the shelf (

Growth

A key example of CEO Justin Woolverton and COO Doug Bouton's ability to adapt came in mid-2015 when they took a hard look at their packaging. They realized that although there was nothing blatantly wrong with it, it wasn't quickly catching the eyes of people browsing the aisles. So a redesign came, and they opted for simple and clean, with the calorie count smack dab in the center.

The lesson: Focus on what matters.

With the new design, the brand was poised for success, but still needed to increase awareness to fuel sales. That awareness came from an unexpected corner, when in January 2016, a GQ writer ate nothing but Halo Top for 10 days straight and published an article on his experience that went viral: What It's Like to Eat Nothing but This Magical, Healthy Ice Cream for 10 Days. Public awareness then grew rapidly.  

To illustrate this turning, let's look at Halo Top on the Consumer Reach Index (CRI), a feature within the machine learning platform Helio, which measures how likely a consumer is to encounter a particular brand or product based on brand growth (e.g. social media) and distribution growth (e.g. grocery stores).

As seen here, Halo Top started in mid-2015 with a much lower reach than Arctic Zero. The rebrand and publicity in GQ made Halo Top to pop. Add in the release of new flavors, and by the end of 2016, its consumer reach caught up to Arctic Zero and has been on a tear since.

Lessons for the industry

Product differentiation, in a way that truly matters to the consumer, is needed but not a guarantee for success. One of the huge factors in Halo Top's runaway success was the brand's ability to effectively read the market and offer a product that other ice cream brands didn't. Equally important though was Justin and Doug's close attention to customer perception and willingness to shift gears, allowing them to pull off a pitch-perfect rebrand. It takes founders with intelligence, savvy and persistence to steer a brand from zero to market dominance within five years.

The biggest lesson here for other CPG companies is that it's not enough to simply release a great product. You have to tell that story clearly and effectively to attract people to your vision. The good news? It typically doesn't require a lot of funding, as evidenced by Halo Top--it's just a lot of long hours and honest reflection by the founders.

Published on: Feb 1, 2018