As students lined up in the bustling Colby Spa, John Violette ’21 scooped vanilla ice cream into small paper cups. “Just remember how they taste,” said Justin Laughlin ’21 as students dug in—and then recorded their reactions.
Airy, creamy, fluffy… Heavy, sugary, watery…
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With almost a hundred participants, the blind taste test—five brands, packaging hidden from view—was a success. A class assignment? A psychology experiment? No. The ice cream tasting was part of an ongoing collaboration between DavisConnects, which facilitates research, internship, and global experiences for all Colby students, and Gifford’s Famous Ice Cream that turned Colby students into real-life marketing consultants.
In July 2018 the Colby team launched a comprehensive market analysis for Gifford’s, a Maine-based company selling about two million gallons of ice cream every year via a retail web stretching from Maine to Las Vegas. Through field research, taste testing, and consumer surveys, students have been investigating Gifford’s place in the ice cream market, gathering information on its current buyers, and determining ways to attract new customers. Gifford’s leadership is using Colby’s surveys and analytics to shape its effort to become a stronger New England brand.
Bottom line: Colby’s ice cream venture is serious business.
The project is the brainchild of Lisa Noble, Colby’s director of employer engagement and DavisConnects advisor for finance, consulting, and entrepreneurship, who, earlier in her career, helped market world-renowned brands—Unilever, Advil and ThermaCare, and PepsiCo and Frito-Lay to name a few. Now Noble is designing a series of market research projects for students. “That’s what I’ve been doing for 30 years leading into coming to Colby, heading up brand strategy and quantitative insights at global market research firms,” she said.
She’s currently putting her skill set to use for Colby students.
“I’m trying to create new kinds of experiences. They don’t have to be jobs and internships. … It’s not a binary world we live in,” Noble said, stressing that project-based work has as much value. “This is the perfect way to see how your liberal arts education is applied.”
DavisConnects is a one-stop resource for students for career counseling, internship placements, and research and global study opportunities. Now Noble has added another service: student consultants for real businesses that want real results.
After learning of Gifford’s needs, Noble formed what was dubbed the Ice Dream Team. The assignment: determining precisely who Gifford’s customers are.
Lisa Noble: from marketing Happy Meals and Red Lobster to DavisConnects
After obtaining her B.A. in psychology from the University of Virginia, Lisa Noble worked across various industries, brands, and roles. “I had been both on the client side, working closely with brands, and on what we would call the supplier side, which is working for agencies that provide the insights and the brand strategy to top brands,” she said. Noble optimized Happy Meals, helped Red Lobster find a pricing strategy, and worked with Godiva to make it an everyday treat for chocolate lovers. “What I really loved at the end of the day was helping young people skill-up, and helping them figure out their next move, and helping them into their new jobs providing kind of career guidance.”
Consequently, she started a career-coaching business for students. However, this was a costly service in New York City, reaching only about 60 students a year; Noble wanted to touch the lives—or careers—of more students of different means. “To me, the only way to do that is inside an institution of higher learning,” she said.
She looked northward and, since 2016, has assisted hundreds of students, wearing multiple hats and working around the clock at Colby. She’s creating new experiences for Colby students, preparing them for interviews, and helping them launch careers in finance, consulting, and entrepreneurship. She’s also mentoring Colby’s Consulting Club. “It’s actually been the hardest, the most joyful work I’ve ever had,” said Noble. “By far.”
“When asked the question, ‘Who is a Gifford’s customer?’… we would respond hesitantly because we were basing our response off outdated research and information,” said Lindsay Skilling, Gifford’s CEO and the middle of three Gifford siblings. “We needed to determine who our customers are at the retail [store] level of our business in comparison to our ice cream stand customers.”
Gifford’s had one more concern—reaching millennials, said Samantha Plourd, Gifford’s marketing manager and the youngest of the siblings.
The original 10 Ice Dream Team members set out to help. They came from a broad range of backgrounds and interests, including Fatimah Ali ’19, a computer science major and mathematics minor. To enrich her experiences, she always looked to try new things at Colby, like the Gifford’s project, she said.
“Initially I thought, as a computer science major, I would need to get a job as a software engineer,” Ali said. “But through the Gifford’s consulting project, I was able to realize that I can use my tech background for consulting or advising.” Now medical technology consulting is part of her career plan.
Ali’s career-changing experiences began at pizza-and (of course)-ice cream-fueled late-night meetings, where the students planned their first mission: going undercover at local supermarkets to observe people’s ice cream buying habits. But first, they had to locate Gifford’s in the store. They walked the ice cream aisle once, then twice before Noble pointed to their client’s product—with indistinct packaging and small Gifford’s logo.
“We walked back and forth … browsing how people were making their ice cream choices, and trying to figure out which demographics were choosing what ice cream tubs,” Ali said. They also eyed people’s shopping carts. What kinds of food did they have in their carts? Were they shopping for a large or a small family? The students surreptitiously jotted it all down.
Students, including Paul Korte ’20, spent another day interviewing customers of various ages at Gifford’s Waterville stand. As a Gifford’s Campfire S’mores flavor fan, Korte knows what makes Gifford’s special. And he was curious to hear other people’s stories, like one customer who first came to Gifford’s as a child while at a summer camp. “Now they’re bringing their kids and grandkids to have that same experience,” Korte explained. “That really told us a lot about the story of the company and the sentimental factor [that] plays into people’s decisions.”
This was Korte’s first exposure to consulting, which, he realized, was a merger between his majors: English and economics.
Ethnographic research. Check. Quantitative analysis followed.
John Chester “JC” Gifford Jr., vice president of sales and the oldest of the Gifford siblings, provided students with one-year of supermarket scanner data. Selim Hassairi ’21, a computer science and physics double major, and his teammates mined the data, investigating sales volume, container sizes, and flavor popularity.
When they graphed container sizes against sales volume, they saw two big bumps, one for small containers and another for big containers, he said. “And essentially, we found that Gifford’s sizes kind of fell in the middle. Their small size was a bit too big and their large size was too large.” Why was this significant? Hassairi explained: “Gifford’s is a bit more expensive because they’re actually giving more product.” But apparently buyers didn’t realize they were getting more ice cream if they bought Gifford’s, he said.
Hassairi has since talked about the project in internship interviews, including one with an engineering company. “I remember them being impressed that the work we’ve done over the summer directly impacted the company,” he said.
And it did just that, with students presenting their findings to the Gifford’s leadership team. Skilling, the CEO, vividly remembers Colby students’ first presentation, including hearing of students’ struggle to find Gifford’s ice cream in supermarket aisles. “When we did the re-branding many years ago, at the time it worked,” she said. “It’s not working anymore. It’s not jumping off the shelf.”
Gifford’s executives left the meeting convinced that it’s time for change. But in what direction? “We don’t even know what our customers care about,” said Skilling. What should they highlight on their new packaging? What would appeal to current buyers and potential new customers? Those answers would come from the Ice Dream Team, too.
In January 2019 Noble assembled a new team, as the summer group had moved on to other academics. “If you don’t know your customers, you can’t build your brand,” she said to 13 students at the kick-off meeting. The plan: hold an on-campus taste test and design surveys to collect data on ice cream buyers.
Grossman Hall—hub of DavisConnects—became a hotbed of ideas every Tuesday afternoon. Although not an academic class, these meetings often felt like an engaging seminar: a word triggered a question that led to a new idea. What about Starbucks’ unique size names? What if Gifford’s did the same? Noble shared her experiences from optimizing Happy Meal pricing.
Among those listening in was Alex Ozols ’22, who interned at the Chobani yogurt company before coming to Colby. Since then, “I’ve been just so hooked on brand strategy, marketing, advertising,” he said and added with a smile, “I just sort of become like an ideas man.” Ozols and others planned the taste test. Blind taste testing? Packaging test? Students pondered. Give a voucher? Rank flavors by taste? What if survey takers made their own sundaes? Where should it be? Dana? The Spa?
While the taste test came together, students toured the Gifford’s plant in Skowhegan, looking for clues about its operations. Their first stop was Gifford’s museum-like meeting room, with packaging from different eras, and certificates and trophies documenting the company’s generations-long success. On the spot, students began a packaging discussion. And the more they learned, the more ideas they had.
Family-owned Gifford’s is growing its brand
A small, local, family-owned business, Gifford’s Famous Ice Cream has a rich history, dating back to the late 1800s. The company started with a horse-drawn wagon, delivering milk and ice cream. Now, the company produces world-class ice cream in Skowhegan, Maine, under the leadership of its fifth-generation ice cream makers.
Siblings Lindsay Skilling, JC Gifford, and Samantha Plourd, along with their cousin Ryan Porter, preserve old recipes and close family ties. They have 37 year-round employees, some of whom have been working for Gifford’s since before the siblings were born.
That’s why “passion, process, and people” are what makes Gifford’s ice cream different, said VP of Sales JC Gifford. “We make our own ice cream mix with our same [old] recipes or same high-quality ingredients.” In freezers dating back to the 1940s, Gifford’s ice cream goes through a slow churn process, giving its smooth taste and eliminating ice crystals, he explained.
Back on campus, some worked on blind testing, which involved recording people’s views on different brands of vanilla ice cream. Others helped with a brand-recognition test, where participants were asked to identify ice cream brands from their logos and packages.
“When you have a room full of Colby students, there’s a lot of brainpower in that room; you can do a lot of stuff and can think of a lot of solutions,” said Chase Goode ’21, an economics and global studies double major. He walked into the first meeting without any expectations and walked out feeling inspired. “I never knew helping businesses and trying to make them more successful was actually what consulting was,” Goode said.
The team’s advice for Gifford’s began to take shape as they analyzed the results. “Creaminess, texture, and taste proved to be the most advantageous for Gifford’s during the taste test,” they found; the blind taste test compared Gifford’s against Ben & Jerry’s, Edy’s, Häagen-Dazs, and Halo Top. Students identified test limitations, such as not having coolers for a two-hour event. Gifford’s leaders walked out with three recommendations: use the words nostalgic and classic that were strongly associated with Gifford’s; highlight qualities like real ingredients and real Maine dairy; show awards on packaging.
Taste test. Check.
The surveys focused on people’s ice cream habits. Where did they buy their ice cream? Did they eat it at home or away from home? How about brands, quality, and price? The team sent out two different online surveys to Gifford’s customers and general ice cream buyers. Both existing Gifford’s customers and non-Gifford’s buyers around the country were targeted as students tried to find out what ice cream brands people are buying and why. “That’s very different than anything we’ve done,” said Skilling, Gifford’s CEO.
More than 900 people responded to a customer survey shared through the company’s Facebook and Instagram accounts. The results showed that contrary to Gifford’s assumptions, its customers varied in age. “We thought it was just an older generation, but really there was a good mix of generations,” said Plourd. The survey also identified what the customers valued, the words they associated with Gifford’s, and the other ice cream brands they purchased.
The general survey, on the other hand, was more detailed (and more revealing). Noble opted to use Qualtrics, an online survey service that tailors questions according to individual responses. Diane Zhang ’22, who had learned Qualtrics in a psychology class, worked with Noble to program the initial survey. “I think it’s really demanding to think about all the aspects of purchasing ice cream. And I never thought that there are so many aspects to that,” she said.
Working with Noble, Zhang developed the analytic logic that would determine what response would trigger which question. Once the survey was ready, the rest of the team provided feedback. “It’s actually good to work with other people and have so many people working on one project with their own perspectives from marketing, advertisement, and economics,” Zhang said.
After weeks of work, the survey went live on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk—an online crowdsourcing platform. When the results came in, students eliminated outliers, ending up with 524 people who purchased ice cream for their household in the past three months. Grady Jendzejec ’19, a philosophy and economics: financial markets double major, and Pauline Nguyen ’21 analyzed habits and preferences of millennials and Gen Z. Their conclusion: these age groups preferred smaller sizes than Gifford’s offered.
The Ice Dream Team again presented their findings to Gifford’s leadership team, which came to Grossman Hall with notebooks in hand. For millennials and Gen Z, the students suggested introducing pints and cups. They also came up with region-specific recommendations. For instance, the West was interested in new brands and flavors, natural ingredients, and good value. In the Midwest, there was an opportunity to expand ice cream stands. The South valued “old fashioned.” The analysis showed what qualities were associated with Maine: authentic, wild, and pure.
“It’s very refreshing to have those discussions and just sit back and listen to them and look at the data that they provide,” said JC Gifford. “Now it’s on us to take the time to really evaluate it and take it to the next step.”
Explore a sample of the students’ findings
Being taken seriously by a company’s executives boosted the students’ confidence, students said. “It’s not every day that a college student gets to work with the CEO and a leadership group, no matter the size. Having your input being taken seriously was a really validating experience as well,” said Jendzejec, adding that this project “was invaluable to my ability to talk on an interview and have that on my résumé.”
He’s since been hired by the BAV Group, an advertising and marketing company.
Roger Ye ’19, a statistics and economics double major who joined the team after spring break, said the Gifford’s project “gives me a lot of talking points when I’m talking with alumni and people in the market research industry. We feel connected in some way.”
Ye used his statistics skills to find key characteristics of premium consumers, as well as looking for ways to push infrequent customers to buy more often. “The portion of the presentation that Roger did, with randomization of the data—I never would have thought to go in that direction,” said Ryan Porter, Gifford’s quality assurance manager and the Gifford siblings’ cousin. “That seems almost like a financial thing, but for an ice cream company, that was pretty neat to dig into.”
Gifford’s is already studying the students’ discoveries to see which ones it will pursue, including testing the market for pints by making that size for a private label. The leadership team is also meeting with packaging companies to find the right fit. Skilling said they plan to seek Colby students’ advice once they have design options.
And the collaboration continues: Sam Pratico ’20, a science, technology, and society major, interned with Gifford’s last summer. Similar to what the Ice Dream Team did, Associate Professor of Economics Tim Hubbard and his student researcher, Yuanyuan Dong ’20, used supermarket scanner data to investigate ice cream sales trends and Gifford’s place within that landscape. This was a deeper dive into the dataset.
Noble said she hopes to get more companies of all industries and sizes to engage with Colby students and faculty. “Gifford’s is the first of many,” she said. Conversations are ongoing that would establish a partnership between DavisConnects and Bangor Savings Bank.
A Closer Look at the Ice Cream Market
Last summer, Associate Professor of Economics Tim Hubbard and Yuanyuan Dong ’20, a summer research assistant fellow in data science funded by Colby’s Data Science Initiative, analyzed scanner data to help Gifford’s with its pricing strategy and product diversity. For Hubbard it was an opportunity to engage Maine’s locavore culture through a partnership between academe and the private sector, and to apply material Dong had learned in his classes. “This was a way of actually understanding those ideas using real world data,” he said.
Dong examined sales trends, market shares, the value of labeling, container sizes, and popular flavors. She also compared Gifford’s against its competitors in detail. Although Dong’s and Ice Dream Team’s work happened independently from each other at different times, they drew out similar suggestions. Dong’s findings revealed that changing labeling and container sizes could increase revenues, and that novelties could be a potential market for Gifford’s. The study also suggested new flavors, like strawberry and chocolate chip cookie dough, which Gifford’s could introduce for home consumption. Dong learned R, a programming language, to analyze the data. “I think personally she gained a lot in terms of a skill set,” Hubbard said.