Be it in a tub, on a cone or a stick: ice cream is a staple. It recalls particular emotions, feelings and occasions – the nostalgic anticipation of hearing the iconic truck jingle; its cooling sensation in the summer associated with carefree fun; and the joy of choosing favourite flavours and trying new ones. Whilst these connotations remain core to ice cream’s residual, enduring cultural charm, let’s explore how meanings are evolving through the more emergent codes of the category.

Complex Culinary Blends

Moving beyond classic Neapolitan flavours, the category has seen imaginative twists on taste and texture. Whilst players like Ben & Jerry’s have made their mark as a seemingly unlimited powerhouse of boldly sugary flavour innovations (complete with bits of marshmallows, brownies and cookies) and busy, saturated pack styles to match, newer brands are rethinking the stronghold of intensely sweet flavour.

Emergently, a much more subtle visual style is paired with more thoughtfully blended ingredients beyond milk and sugar. Brands like Jeni’s use alternative bases like “Mackenzie Creamery goat cheese” or “cultured buttermilk” featuring textures such as “oven-toasted oat streusel” and “crushed almond candy”. Theses descriptors offer hyper-specific detail telling the contextual story of makership behind each product. Paired with pastel, block colours and handwritten typography on-pack, together these cues suggest handmade care as if made from ingredients in Jeni’s own, local kitchen – coding elevated, small-batch craft.

Burma Burma, a family brand offering the flavours of Burmese cooking, have ventured into the ice cream category. Combining ingredients typically associated with mealtimes outside of dessert, like olive oil, avocado and sweetcorn, with sweeter profiles of dark chocolate and honeycomb pushes ice cream into more savoury blends. The brand’s visual identity mirrors this more complex approach. Moving away from bright, vibrant saturation associated with ice cream trucks and artificial colouring, Burma Burma’s light pastels and darkly coloured, scalloped-edge highlights connote kitchen wallpaper or dressmaking patterns – coding artistic consideration. Together, a culinary-minded take on flavours outside of the sweet and a sophisticated visual language communicate thoughtful artisanship.

Refined Playfulness

Despite these moves into complexity, emergent brands continue to retain ice cream’s sense of light-hearted playfulness whilst innovating with a sense of refinement. Chinese brand Cokka’s range of ice cream tubs incorporate regional flavours including taro, matcha, mango and honeydew – illustrating the growing demand for global ingredients. The brand’s visual identity is bright and uplifting, featuring blocks of matte, striped colours communicating a sense of geometric balance as well as various cartoon-like mascots.

The use of mascots rendered in fresh, illustrative styles is appearing increasingly across the category. The anthropomorphised cow and earth sitting side by side on Alec’s ice cream tubs communicate a light-hearted approach to its more serious purpose of “reversing climate change” with “regenerative” ingredients. Similarly, the brightly colour-blocked variations of an abstract face with closed eyes across Doozy Pots’ packaging communicates dreamy, whimsical escape whilst offering plant-based ingredients striving “for a better world”  – suggesting a reworked, purpose-led take on the iconic playfulness that has been culturally core to ice cream.

For Cokka, the cartoon aesthetic communicates imaginative, joyous make-believe, to corroborate its on-pack slogan offering “a cup of relaxed pleasure” amidst a “busy life”. Overall, the brand combines a fresh, youthful visual identity with refinement and control coding a markedly grown-up positioning speaking to the persisting need for a sweet break – no matter how old you get.

Not-So-Sweet Attitude

Some brands, however, are pulling away entirely from ice cream’s core meanings to disrupt by subverting its associations to sweetness. Language used in cultural expressions, such as a “guilty pleasure” or “cheat days”, has framed the idea that adults should watch their “bad behaviour” when it comes to enjoying food, especially sweet treats. Bad Habit draws on the idea of ice cream as an unhealthy indulgence by reclaiming its perceived “badness” unapologetically. Unique combinations like negroni-sweetcorn, miso-raspberry and dill-yuzu invite consumers to push the boundaries of indulgence into flavour exploration. Unlike the bright or pastel colours across most ice cream packaging, the brand features large, bold and capitalised lettering stamped across a matte black background. The monochrome colourways paired with the line drawing logo of a dripping mouth –resembling that of a vampire’s –  are simple yet confident in the brand’s purpose: to make a statement and encourage ice cream lovers to explore and rebelliously embrace all the good of their “bad habit”.

Foff Srv ice cream – a plant-based offering with a focus on sustainability at its heart- takes a similarly innovative and subversive approach. The brand name not only abbreviates what would be considered “bad” language but also the removal of vowels from the word “serve” connotes non-standard spellings as found in internet slang or casually typed communications by text or on social media. This more lo-fi, informal tone aligns with Foff Srv’s parent brand’s roots in streetwear and street culture. A punchy, graffiti-style font on dark packaging with a defiantly raised middle finger logo together speak to counter-cultural ideas of defiance against set regimes and systems. Foff Srv challenges the status quo of ice cream as sweet escapism and instead uses it as a canvas for resistant self-expression.

3 key takeouts for brands:

  1. Evolve ice cream’s traditional cultural heartland of whimsical, summer fun to a more elevated, refined and ‘grown up’ expression of playfulness and escape
  2. Take inspiration from culinary contexts to reinvigorate on-pack cues – communicating thoughtfully blended, complex flavours rather than just intense sweetness
  3. For brands looking to disrupt, consider rethinking attachments to bright colourways and codes of uplifting joy – and take on more subversive visual styles

Lailah Choudhry, Senior Semiotician

How the Ice Cream Category is Keeping its Cool: Ice cream innovation