Who killed Marsha Marsha Marshmallow?

June 2, 2007

Ben & Jerry’s put themselves on the map with irreverent product naming 20 years ago when they introduced us to Cherry Garcia. But the naming style has hit a bump in the road as a more recent flavor has shed its own irreverent name in favor of a more descriptive one: Marsha Marsha Marshmallow is now…drum roll please…, S’mores (yawn).

Is this the response of corporate ownership (Ben & Jerry’s has been a subsidiary of Unilever since 2000) to unmet sales expectations?  Did focus groups ultimately rebel? Perhaps the suits thought a plain old descriptive name would spark sales. But at what price? Under the banner of the Ben & Jerry’s brand, a descriptive name – even one, like S’mores, that has a bit of personality – feels dull. In the other premium ice cream freezer, think about Haagen Dazs. Interestingly, S’mores wouldn’t fit there either, but for the exact opposite reason.  Haagen Dazs uses purely descriptive naming (think Chocolate Chocolate Chip to Ben & Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk). Here, S’mores would stand out for its lack of descriptiveness. Product naming conventions established within the portfolio set expectations for customers – and departing from that creates a dissonance. 

Yes, Ben & Jerry’s has some descriptive flavors – but what else can you really call Vanilla? But the mix-ins and unique combinations offer an opportunity for the brand to make a statement. There is an allure to Ben & Jerry’s that, perhaps more than any other brand, is communicated by their naming.  Chunky Monkey, Phish Food, Neopolitan Dynamite, From Russia with Buzz, The Gobfather.  Is there any other brand out there that uses naming so colorfully?

Ben & Jerry

And I really thought Marsha Marsha Marshmallow was fit for the Ben & Jerry’s pantheon: a great flavor that just made you smile at the freezer (at home or at the store).  Now I am no great Ben & Jerry’s historian, I’m just a fan. But the fact that this flavor lives on neutered of its distinctive identity seems very un-Ben & Jerry’s. It’s not like Ben & Jerry’s is shy about retiring flavors. (If you've got a few minutes, take an online stroll through the flavor graveyard.) They take chances in product development, just as any good R&D effort should, and some just don’t make the cut.  It’s part of the fun.

Browsing for Ben & Jerry’s flavors through the glass freezer is one of life’s small (ok, very small) pleasures. I do hope we can chalk this particular incident up to a bizarre naming anomaly and it does not foretell a future of “Vanilla with Cherries and Chocolate Chunks” or “Banana with Chocolate Chunks and Walnuts.” Ben & Jerry’s has brand permissions that few others enjoy, using product names to connect with us, entertain us and engage us all at once. Snapple had it for a while, though they have long since lost their quirkiness. Starbucks could probably pull off a move it that direction with their naming.  But Ben & Jerry’s is the king of naming with a wink and laugh. Long live Marsha Marsha Marshmallow.  Pass the Chubby Hubby.

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