I don’t eat ice cream - not much, anyway. Every now and then, though, I splurge on a cone of the good stuff, lactose intolerance be damned. And, until recently, my cone of choice was Haagen-Dazs.
Founded in 1961, Haagen-Dazs is an ice cream institution. There’s an ice cream bar in every mall, and burgundy-gold cartons line the freezer shelves of every store, Walmart and local market alike. With 58 permanent flavors and regional offerings (Azuki in Japan, Green Tea throughout Asia and the US) it’s clear the average consumer loves the stuff. And why not? After all, it is pretty good ice cream. Earlier this month, the ice cream giant opened an ice cream bar in Delhi. There was just one catch: only international travelers were allowed. According to Rajesh Kalra,
'The banners outside the outlet said: Exclusive Preview for International Travellers. And under that, in an even finer print, the real bombshell: Access restricted only to holders of international passports.'
Nothing about Haagen-Dazs’ fine print is pretty--”access restricted” is downright rude (asking patrons to show an international passport doubly so). Worse is the insinuation that Haagen-Dazs is not only too expensive for the average ice cream loving Indian, but too good for them, too. According to Kalra, “the franchisee is an Indian company based in Delhi and the man [in charge] is also an Indian”. Further research reveals the company to be RTC Restaurants, owners of Ruby Tuesday and Sbarro in India. Where did the decision to restrict entry originate? With Haagen-Dazs, or RTC? When I contacted Haagen-Dazs in the US, the customer service rep denied knowledge of the international traveler restriction, saying the company was unaware of the policy. An email to Haagen-Dazs India resulted in this email from Anu Bhatia, Consumer Relations Manager, General Mills India.
'The recently opened Häagen-Dazs shop is open to one and all, and there’s no question of barring entry to anyone on any basis. The preview on Thursday, 10th December had a morning media event which was attended by journalists of repute from Indian media... during the mock training days at the shop leading up to 10th December, a lot of interest was generated and hundreds of walk-ins were given free samples of our ice cream. The store is now open to all public and seeing brisk business. ... The poster in question was part of initial local store communication at a few locations within the same mall announcing the opening of the new Häagen-Dazs shop in the mall. The message was intended to suggest that you can enjoy, for instance, a taste of the French Riviera without traveling to France – by enjoying Häagen-Dazs. Unfortunately the reference to the international passport holder on the poster may have led to a significant miscommunication. This was completely unintended. It was a wrong choice of words, and we regret the error.'
Is this really just a case of miscommunication? Possibly. Mistakes and poorly thought out campaigns are not unheard of in the advertising industry. And the particular error--“access restricted only to holders of international passports”--could be the result of bad copyediting. That said, English-as-a-business-language is quite widespread in India, and the likelihood of an international company such as Haagen-Dazs would hire anyone with subpar language skills seems quite small. 24 hours after I received the above email from Ms. Bhatia, David A. Hartley, Assistant Manager of Consumer Relations at Dreyers, sent me an email distancing the US company from the Delhi fiasco. “We have forwarded the information to General Mills International,” he writes, “which is the worldwide owner of the Häagen-Dazs brand business. Nestlé and Dreyer’s are licensed to manufacture and market Häagen-Dazs in the United States and Canada only, including Häagen-Dazs shops in the United States and Canada.” While I’m generally willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, Dreyer’s reflexive don’t-look-at-me response makes me wonder if the poster text was really in errata. Of course, then there’s the matter of Ramit, a friend of Rajesh Kalra, the Times of India blogger who started it all. From his article,
'I immediately called Ramit. “You are an international traveler, and you have a passport, so you can go in”, I said. Ramit’s response was instant: I tried to enter but they said you are not allowed for you don’t have an international passport.'
Which begs the question--if the poster’s text was not a mistake, what exactly did Haagen-Dazs hope to achieve? For most people, higher prices are a sign of quality. But they’re also often an indicator of status: in the US, many people choose Starbucks over their (cheaper) local coffeehouses because the green-and-white cup has meaning. As Jon Markman, editor of the independent investment newsletter The Daily Advantage, puts it:
'Also, a lust for status emblems is an obnoxious burden that we carry around in our collective cerebral cortex...In addition to being an effective drug-delivery system for the electric buzz of caffeine, a cup of Starbucks beams out a little message that we are wealthy enough not to care about overspending for coffee.
Is Haagen-Dazs’ move an attempt to bump their brand up into status symbol territory? Perhaps. Is it smart? Done well, yes. But launching a brand requires careful consideration of all variables, and, if their explanation is true, Haagen-Dazs looks not just incompetent, but foolish. While exclusionary tactics may elevate the brand to some extent, they also alienate their main customer base: families. True, ice cream bars can be a fun date. But whenever I pass an ice cream bar (including Haagen-Dazs)--downtown, in a mall, or at a popular tourist spot, the majority of customers are middle class couples with kids. And though there are some traditionally kid-free places around town (bars and clubs), excluding kids from an ice cream store is kind of like, well, excluding them from a candy store: good for their teeth, and bad for your profit. Even if Haagen-Dazs’ aim were to set up as a status symbol or luxury brand, an “International Travelers Only” policy would be insulting. It also violates a cardinal rule of business: location. If you want to sell coffee, you go where the coffee drinkers are (Seattle, apparently). If you want to sell to international travelers, you go to where the international travelers are--the airport. International airports have long been luxury havens. Duty free stores packed with designer items abound; in 2006, San Francisco International welcomed a Gucci boutique (not a store--a boutique). Of course, everyone, even international travelers, wants Gucci. The jury is still out on whether or not they want Haagen-Dazs. Is this the beginning of an ice cream apartheid? Will Haagen-Dazs soon be serving Indians “approved” flavors while opening their catalog to travelers? Will there be restrictions on who can purchase a burgundy-gold carton on the street? Or are Indians acceptable when they’re out of sight? And, if so, who serves customers at the Delhi ice cream bar? Does Haagen-Dazs HQ fly “appropriate” staff the nearly 8, 000 miles to Delhi? 24 hours after my missive from Mr. Hartley, I received another email, this time from Christy Stromquist, of General Mills Consumer Services, singing the same tune over again.
'The wording of the poster has conveyed something that we never intended. The wording prompted some to take the reference to “international travelers” and “international passports” very literally – thinking we meant to exclude people who were not “international travelers”. That is not the case. At no time did we ever keep anyone from entering the shop. In fact, our actual wish is to bring the taste of super-premium Häagen-Dazs ice cream to Indian consumers. That is the reason we opened the shop in Delhi.'
Even if the Haagen-Dazs party line is true, they may have burned their bridges in India. A new hashtag, #HaagenDazsSucks, has been trending quickly as Indians discuss the ice cream giant’s motives. I like Haagen-Dazs. But, if I could get my grubby little paws on it, I’d much prefer to eat kulfi. The creamy, lip-numbing, tongue-purpling dessert is, by far, my favorite kind of frozen fare. Which begs the question: are Indians really missing out on anything? Given the choice, would they choose a cone of Vanilla Honey Bee over a stick of good ol’ ras malai? In the meantime, I’m switching to Ben & Jerry’s. References: Kalra, Rajesh. Sorry, Indians Not Allowed, The Times of India, 15 December, 2009 Bhushan, Ratna, Haagen-Dazs' first cafe coming up in Delhi, The Economic Times, 27 November, 2009 Markman, Jon. Starbucks’ Genius Blends Community, Caffeine, MSN Money Supermodels, 16 February, 2005.