marketing lessons from the ice cream man

We live in a wonderful little neighborhood in a small town. I never fail to be surprised at how surprised I am about small-town life.

This summer the ice cream truck made an appearance. Growing up, the ice cream man drove his truck (usually one of those panel vans but for a short time it was 3 wheel motorcycle rig). In the summer the truck would drive up and down our streets in my West Texas hometown. You knew he was near when you heard Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” — I vaguely remember it on bells but later piano on tape (probably cassette).

I couldn’t believe it when early one evening this summer I heard a bad but identifiable version of “The Entertainer” blaring on our street. It was an ice cream truck! I thought those were all gone. I figured they’d all died out with dinosaurs, VHS tapes and video rental stores.

I stepped out on the porch and sure enough it was an ice cream truck whizzing by. Yep. Whizzing. Didn’t have my radar gun with me so I don’t know exactly how fast he was going but it wasn’t walking speed. More like the speed you drive in a residential area on your way to pick up the kids. Purposeful…not dawdling. I didn’t think much about it at the time.

Some days later I heard “The Entertainer” in the distance followed by the sound upstairs of our teenager yelling: “It’s the ice cream man!!!” There was the rustling and clinking of change-gathering and stampeding down the stairs. The front door swung open and we heard the sounds of “The Entertainer” receding in the distance–all Doppler effect, no ice cream.

Then it was a frustrated stomp up the stairs accompanied by mutterings.

Didn’t think much about it until a day or so later.


“The Entertainer” in the distance…

Bounding down the stairs (change was pre-stacked and ready)…

Front door swings open and…

“The Entertainer” receding in the distance. Another near miss…

Stomping and muttering up the stairs.

Which did get my attention. Not the muttering (she’s a teenager) but rather why couldn’t a perfectly healthy, motivated, interested consumer get the ice cream she wanted?

I know my sample isn’t perfect, and I know that I wasn’t around or able to notice every pass through our neighborhood…but I began trying to catch the ice cream truck to get a photo (a blog was forming).

Here’s the best I did…that’s him going away in the distance.

Now I have to say:

I’ve never owned or run an ice cream truck business, so there are certainly things I don’t know about that business model…

There are kids on our street who I would think would fit the demographic—even our youngish teenager was pumped to get some of that product.

I think the primary distribution method for an ice cream truck is for people to step up and purchase the ice cream on the truck—it’s not a phone-in, mail or Internet purchase model.

So why would an ice cream truck drive too fast for their primary customers to make a transaction? I don’t have the answer to that question but I have had some thoughts about how this fits your and my world.

The first ice cream truck lesson is: DRIVE SLOWLY! Give kids a chance to gather allowance money or badger their mom for change. That takes time. You gotta drive slowly.

For you and me the lesson is “frequency.”

You have to give your audience a chance to react and respond. Just like it takes some time of a kid to gather change and get down the stairs, you have to give your donors, your constituents, your audience time to respond. That means frequency.

One impact won’t do it.

You have to be willing to repeat messaging to get people’s attention. Will some people think you shouldn’t? Yep. But will many more donors be glad that they got the second chance to give? Yep. Think about the number of times you were going to respond to a letter, an opportunity…a something and life interfered. You got distracted. And you didn’t do it. That’s happening constantly to your audience (donors).

The second ice cream truck lesson is you can’t park the truck. For an ice cream truck who’s selling to kids in a neighborhood you have to keep moving. And you have to be watching for neighborhoods where there are no kids coming out (or in your rearview mirror shaking their fists at you). If there are no kids, then move to neighborhoods where there are kids.

For us, we have to remember that just being “frequent” isn’t enough. We have to be in the right neighborhoods. That’s a data analytic thing. That’s mailing (emailing) to the right people at the right times. That means you can’t mail to everyone, all the time. That means you can’t connect with donors who’ve never given you a gift of more that $10 as often as you do with donors who’ve written you $100 checks.

The third ice cream truck lesson is you can’t park your truck in front of my house and blast “The Entertainer” at me for an hour in the evening. Do that bucko and I’m calling the cops (and around here they don’t get much action so taking down an ice cream truck would mean they roll the SWAT team).

For us, that means you can’t do what I call “carpet bombing” strategies. You know what that is: mailing everyone on your file all the time. Or emailing every email address every time. Or sending the same appeal over and over. We know that, but funny how many are still doing it. Luckily donors aren’t calling a small-town SWAT force, they’re just ignoring your mail, emails, phone calls and growing increasingly disinterested.

So what about you? Do you have any ice cream truck memories? What about your favorite treat? (Mine was the Orangecicle.) And what do you think about my lessons from the ice cream truck? I’d love to hear from you.

Steve Thomas
Partner, Oneicity

(photo credits: 1. Ecstatic Mark and 2. Steve Thomas)

Steve Thomas

Steve Thomas

6 thoughts on “marketing lessons from the ice cream man”

  1. And make the truck graphics FUN! And how bout some new music like Chuck Berry singing “I feel good…” And how bout a driver who actually REALLY LIKES kids and people…and dogs! Should carry “Frosty Paws.” This is a job I’d like…for one afternoon.

    You learned a lot from an ice cream truck.

  2. @Deborah–you’d be great driving an ice cream truck, of course, you’d be great doing most things. I like the change to Chuck Berry, that would help a lot. If we can only get the association of vehicular ice cream vendors to approve the change, then it could happen.
    Thanks for stopping by, I feel good now!

  3. Are you available to give the keynote address at the next Ice Cream Truck Symposium? These are really great observations about all fields of marketing, not just fund raising. Thanks for the insights.

  4. @Al–I’ll speak to just about anyone who’ll listen…nearly. You’re kind especially since you’re a dude has more than his 10,000 hours in the ad game (ala Gladwell). You’re kind.

    So 2 questions for you:
    -favorite flavor, no one’s copping to that.
    -and how did “The Entertainer” get to be THE ice cream truck song?

    thanks for making the tribe smarter.

  5. Steve- from the ice cream truck—orange creamsicle just like you. from the shop—pistachio gellato. from home machine— fresh raspberry frozen non-fat yogurt with a splash off Sambucca or Stregga (like anise flavor).

    The Entertainer? Maybe someone is trying to punish us

  6. @Al–I’m thinking Deb’s suggestion of Chuck Berry is the way to go. Although if Joplin’s estate is getting a cut of all the ice cream trucks in the US then I’m all good.

    You have good taste in ice cream, my man…among other things.


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