Van Leeuwen made ranch-flavored ice cream…But why?

Inside the ice cream company’s collaboration strategy.
article cover

90120/Paramount+ via Giphy

· 4 min read

In north Brooklyn, the Van Leeuwen Ice Cream Factory combines ingredients like peanut butter and brownies, cherries and chocolate chips, and…parsley and garlic powder.

Over the past few years, the ice cream brand has made headlines for its unusual collaborations, the latest with Hidden Valley Ranch. According to Ben Van Leeuwen, co-founder and CEO of Van Leeuwen Ice Cream, these collabs generate earned media for the brand, which doesn’t have a budget for paid advertising (money instead goes toward pricier ingredients from smaller producers, he told us.)

The “first big one” was Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, which, he said, approached Van Leeuwen and became the impetus for this collab-based strategy after their 2021 partnership generated more media buzz than expected. Other partners have included Grey Poupon, Netflix’s Glass Onion, and the Idaho Potato Commission.

Short-term flavor collaborations, according to Van Leeuwen, should be both iconic and shocking: “When I first heard about Hidden Valley, I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s crazy. We’re not doing that,’” he said. “Then two minutes later, I was like, ‘Wait, my reaction is exactly why we should do this.’”

Van Leeuwen said collaborations are primarily done to increase brand awareness: “Our hope is that people try the Hidden Valley Ranch [flavor], but when they’re picking it up, they see Honeycomb next to that and they say, ‘Hmm, I want to try the Honeycomb, too,’” he said.

Beyond boosting existing ice cream flavors, Van Leeuwen said he considers it a challenge to see if flavors like ranch or onion (as in Glass Onion) can actually taste good. Based on certain reviews, some people seem to actually enjoy them.

Earned it

Nick Higgins, VP and general manager of Hidden Valley Ranch and food services for The Clorox Company, told us in an email that the company sees collaborations as a way to drive “the cultural relevance of the brand.”

Knowing that customers use ranch on foods other than salad, he said the company approached Van Leeuwen “to see how far [they] could really go” with ranch ice cream for National Ranch Day (which apparently falls on March 10).

Get marketing news you'll actually want to read

The email newsletter guaranteed to bring you the latest stories shaping the marketing and advertising world, like only the Brew can.

“We knew the idea would be polarizing, but that is part of the fun,” Higgins said. From an earned-media perspective, he said it was “certainly the most successful National Ranch Day in the brand’s history.”

According to Van Leeuwen, Kraft generated 6 billion impressions and was one of the ice cream brand’s most-covered collaborations to date. “Anecdotally, so far on Hidden Valley, it seems like it’s at least tied with Kraft,” he said.

But how polarizing is too polarizing for a flavor, and is there fear of actually turning customers away? “We don’t want it to be disgusting,” Van Leeuwen said, adding that people shouldn’t hold their breath for a meat flavor, like bacon, anytime soon. However, he does dream of making parmesan ice cream one day.

The scoop on those other flavors…

In addition to its shorter, more outlandish partnerships, Van Leeuwen also has a permanent Affogato flavor in all its stores, made with basketball player Jimmy Butler’s Bigface coffee.

So what makes a collab good for the short-term versus the long haul? “Kind of sales,” Van Leeuwen said, adding that with a flavor like ranch dressing, “people are gonna want to try it but probably not want to have that be their new thing” like they might with a coffee flavor.

As for what’s on the flavor horizon, Van Leeuwen said there’s a birch ice cream made with chef Johnny Spero planned for release around Van Leeuwen’s first DC store opening. Compared to Hidden Valley, he said this one isn’t meant to make as big of a splash.

“We can do these mass-market ones, which get a lot of attention, and then we do smaller ones, which are really, authentically us [and] don’t get as much attention, but they speak to people who are interested in food…and the culinary arts,” he said. “We love doing both.”

Get marketing news you'll actually want to read

The email newsletter guaranteed to bring you the latest stories shaping the marketing and advertising world, like only the Brew can.