What Happens When the Brand Gimmick Is Too Good?

Must read

California Burrito

Weekly Meal Plan #5

Homemade Apple Crumble

It’s easy to read about a fashion designer opening an ice cream pop-up in a superrich neighborhood, full of flavors dedicated to brand-name condiments and pantry ingredients like Heinz Ketchup and Maldon salt, and scream — not for ice cream, but for death. But around 11 a.m. on a July Monday in Mayfair, London, summer just threatening to peek through humid gloom, Anya Hindmarch’s Ice Cream Project was busy enough to need six members of staff in a space that really only has room for three, and nearly half of its flavors were sold out.

The pop-up, which returned for its second year and closes this weekend, is part of a coterie of shops dubbed the Anya Hindmarch Village, which also includes a cafe and three clothing stores. The small space is shrunk even further by large freezers covering the perimeter. Inside, tubs of ice cream are emblazoned not with their exact cargo, but the logos of the brands from which they derive, accented with Hindmarch’s name modestly wreathed around the lids. Walls of empty tubs fill window displays, forming towers of advertisements for Blue Dragon Sweet Chilli Sauce and Kellogg’s Rice Krispies.

Thankfully for visitors on that Monday — and the long, excitable queues that formed at peak times during the rest of the week — the ice cream, which is “made in small batches in Devon” (its maker, upon enquiry, could not be divulged) tends to go beyond the typical stunt flavor. While the thinking behind a lot of gimmicky ice cream begins and ends with a brand tie-up or a marketing campaign to prop up a piece of intellectual property, the Ice Cream Project produces legitimately good desserts.

Flavors are entirely dedicated to a product when it actually makes sense, like in a commendably smooth Ribena blackcurrant sorbet or a grassy Birdseye green pea sorbet. When the shop takes more license with flavors, the executions are surprisingly thoughtful: that Blue Dragon swirled in vanilla embraces the logic of chile crisp on soft serve; a Kikkoman soy sauce flavor ripples with sesame seeds, balancing the umami for a quite compelling taste.

The concept derives from Hindmarch’s Brands collection, which creates totes inspired by the packaging of Perrier, Marmite, and Polo mints, and then retails them for more than 1,000 pounds each ($1,275). An ice cream tub costs a comparatively bargainous 15 pounds ($19) for 500 milliliters (just over a pint), while two generous scoops go for 5.50 pounds ($6); these are relatively affordable prices, especially in a part of the city neither blessed with many scoop shops nor many public spaces to enjoy ice cream. That doesn’t mean an escape from sticker shock; Hindmarch strategically placed the ice cream shop just across the street from her expensive shops, where the real splurges twinkle invitingly to anyone waylaid long enough to enjoy a cone.

Yet, at times, the thoughtfulness behind the ice cream actually brings the project into a strange kind of conflict with its own, brand-bolstering reason for being. A dark chocolate sorbet just seasoned with salt is ultimately more of an exercise in flavor balance than it is a branding exercise for Maldon Salt. A peanut ice cream dedicated to KP salted nuts that lacks the brand’s aggressive saltiness is really just peanut ice cream with a nice blue jacket. Numerous customers over several visits said that they liked their ice creams, but that they didn’t really taste like the branded products of which they are facsimiles. They, in fact, tasted better.

This doesn’t just belie the brandedness of the Ice Cream Project, but also the overwhelming reaction that casts it as a haven of “weird,” “quirky,” and “crazy” flavors. There is a subtle and important difference between an ice cream that is “strange” because it is created in devotion to tomato ketchup and an ice cream that is “strange” because the experience of eating it is uncanny or disconcerting. Ordinarily, stunt ice creams feel hollow because they chase the brand excitement of the former and accept the latter as a natural consequence, which manifests in ice cream that tastes unpleasant — or like ranch dressing. While the outward promise of the Ice Cream Project and its glossy devotion to brands meets the first definition, the actual products it’s putting down don’t meet the second.

A white store exterior with large windows showing off pints of ice cream stacked in tall towers, with The Ice Cream Project written above the door.
Outside the Ice Cream Project.
Anya Hindmarch

While there is a sweet and savory cynicism to this whole enterprise, built on the cultural constructs of “weird” food and branded nostalgia, there is equal cynicism in thinking about a pop-up like this in terms of “this thing is late capitalism.” As Rachel Connolly writes in the Baffler, it’s little more than a rhetorical cop-out for people to accept, with “knowing resignation,” that a fashion designer is duping them with an expensive tub of Heinz Tomato Ketchup ice cream, and that despite knowing this, they’re powerless to resist because this is just the way of the world now.

Anya Hindmarch’s Ice Cream Project doesn’t allow that sort of resignation, but this is by accident as much as it is by design. In making some good scoops of ice cream, particularly more creative combinations incorporating brands with other flavors, the pop-up inadvertently reminds every customer of the shallowness of the very proposition that brought it into the world. So perhaps the most revealing thing about this endeavor on a quaint Knightsbridge street is that over three visits on three separate days, scoops sold in droves, but not a single person bought a tub.

James Hansen is a culture writer from London and the former associate editor of Eater London. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @jameskhansen.

More articles

Latest article

California Burrito

Weekly Meal Plan #5

Homemade Apple Crumble

Chorizo Tacos