Ben & Jerry’s Flavour Gurus Colleen Rossell and Haylee Nelson on bringing brands like Netflix into ice cream

To find out more about how Ben & Jerry’s decides what brands like Netflix taste like, we caught up with two of the company’s top Flavour Gurus – Colleen Rossell and Haylee Nelson.

The role of a Flavour Guru at Ben & Jerry’s sounds like one of the best jobs going.

As Ben & Jerry’s put it: ‘They spend their days and nights tasting the best food in the world, then they mix, blend, chop, whip and taste, taste, taste until they come up with an unmatched batch of pure ice cream euphoria’.

In recent years, the Flavour Gurus have also had to embrace the world of brands, as the firm launches more licensed flavours like Bob Marley’s One Love, Stephen Colbert’s Americone Dream and The Tonight Dough with Jimmy Fallon.

Last year also saw the firm embark on a new partnership with Netflix, with flavours adapting Netflix shows like Space Force and Nailed It, as well as celebrating the streaming service itself with a Netflix & Chilll’d flavour.

To find out more about how Ben & Jerry’s decides what brands like Netflix taste like, we caught up with two of the company’s top Flavour Gurus – Colleen Rossell and Haylee Nelson.

Colleen Rossell, Haylee Nelson, Ben & Jerry’s
Hi guys! It’s great to meet you. The role of a Flavour Guru at Ben & Jerry’s sounds like serious dream job territory! What does it involve?

Haylee Nelson: Being a Flavour Guru is a bit like being a jack-of-all-trades. Of course, there’s the fun parts, like making ice cream, tasting ingredients and helping come up with flavour names – but there’s a surprising amount of office and systems work involved.

Colleen Rossell: We work closely with our brand team and consumer marketing teams to look at what our fans want from us, and then the Flavour Guru’s job is to bring those ideas to life. This involves working with suppliers to get the best ingredients that deliver our concept, working with the plant team to make sure we can make it on a large scale, looking at how all of the components of the pint work together as a finished product… So many things!

I’m sold! It sounds amazing! So how does one become a Flavour Guru?
CR: I was actually a Nutrition major in college. I had to take a food science class as part of my program and I just loved it! My school didn’t have a food science program, so I decided to go to grad school for food science. I always loved food, but I never knew this type of job existed!

I have worked as a food scientist at other companies before joining Ben & Jerry’s, but this is a dream job! Most people think that most of our time is spent in the kitchen – that’s actually not the case, but it is the starting point for what we do!

Great stuff. If we dive into the work… When developing a new Ben & Jerrys flavour, what do those first steps look like? Does consumer research lead the way or does inspiration come from elsewhere?
HN: It’s kitchen chaos! I’m kidding! It’s important we always think about the consumer experience first. We do work with Brand and Consumer Marketing Insights teams to understand what consumers might be interested in, but we also have a lot of internal creativity and other sources of inspiration.

“I think there is an ice cream for every brand, but Ben & Jerry’s has a strong brand identity and values. It would need to be a brand that shares the same mindset and social mission.”

Our Social Mission team might have a project they want a flavour for, so we’ll try and customise something for the campaign, or someone from our team could try a stellar new recipe they want to translate to ice cream, and so on. Some flavours are clear winners from the start, but many need remedial work or just don’t make it to market for lots of different reasons.

CR: Yes, and while we do get valuable information from consumer research, we also get a lot of suggestions from our fans on what they would like to see from the brand; and some of it also comes from our own creativity!

What was the first flavour you guys worked on?
HN: Is this a trick question? The first Ben & Jerry’s ice cream I produced was a Waterbury, VT Factory Tour exclusive that was never sold in retail – it had raspberry swirls and white chocolate polar bears.

That makes it all the more special – and it sounds great! But what would be the first that did land at retail?
HN: My first retail flavour is a tie between the Target-exclusive Non-Dairy Chocolate Salted ‘n Swirled, and the Walmart-exclusive Ice Cream Sammie.

Colleen Rossell, Haylee Nelson, Ben & Jerry’s
And Colleen, which flavour kicked off your time at Ben & Jerry’s

CR: The first pint project I worked on from start to finish was Boots on the Moooo’n – a Netflix flavour. This one was interesting as we built the flavour idea based off of the show concept and a common phrase from the show is the flavour name!

Colleen Rossell, Haylee Nelson, Ben & Jerry’s
So this was based on Netflix’s Space Force show with Steve Carell… How did you go about translating the TV series into an ice cream?

CR: We brainstormed how we could re-create this concept in a pint: Sugar cookie moon in the centre, milk chocolate ice cream as space, toffee clusters as meteors and then the fudge cows… Well, Moooo’n is in the flavour name, but it’s also Ben & Jerry’s and we thought this would be a fun element to add in!

Fudge cows improve any dish, so no complaints from me! Your entire Netflix range looks fantastic. It’s a huge brand with lots of content to its name, so I imagine there were lots of different ways you could’ve tackled creating a Netflix flavour. The range launched with Netflix & Chilll’d, so how did you develop that one?
HN: Netflix is a mammoth brand with a global presence, so we wanted a flavour that could be just as global. Palates around the world are very different, so there were department-wide creative sessions, tastings, and lots of discussion about what kind of flavour build would do well everywhere – while still being fun!

There were virtual and in-person collaborations with folks from the Netflix team, and lots of creative back-and-forth before we landed on the salty and sweet flavour we launched.

Colleen Rossell, Haylee Nelson, Ben & Jerry’s
I’ve inhaled a fair few tubs of that so it’s mission accomplished! Other flavours in the range have focused on specific Netflix shows, like the Boots on the Moooo’n that Colleen talked us through. Another one was the Nailed It-inspired Chip Happens. That show is all about fabulously botched baking, so how did you bring that vibe to life with this flavour?

CR: Well I wasn’t involved in the development phase on this project, but I feel like the unofficial tagline of Nailed It is ‘sh*t happens’. We wanted to play off of that phrase so Chip Happens was born!

There were a lot of different options to play off of ‘chip’ in the flavour, but we landed on the potato chip swirl with chocolate chips in a malty chocolate base… Reminiscent of having a milkshake with fries.

Colleen Rossell, Haylee Nelson, Ben & Jerry’s
Potato chips in ice cream… I’m ordering one right now! Does your approach to flavour creation change much when you’re working with brand?

HN: I haven’t worked on a partnership flavour, but I have worked on Retailer Exclusives and Social Mission flavours. Sometimes the retailer or campaign leader comes to us with a vision in mind. Other times they want us to bring the ideas to them and together we’ll sort through what they find appealing or what they don’t like.

We always make some prototypes and make sure everyone involved can taste the flavour and make suggestions about how to improve it. These projects can be really fulfilling collaborations, both personally and professionally.

Absolutely. And away from ice cream, your brand collaborations have also reached your other snacks, right? Like your The Tonight Dough Cookie Dough Chunks…
CR: Yes, I actually worked on the Tonight Dough snackable project. We really wanted to keep the snackable dough product as close to the pint experience as possible.

People love it for a reason, and we want them to love this just as much as the pint! It involves a lot of tastings and having the pint as a reference to make sure we really deliver on what people love!

Colleen Rossell, Haylee Nelson, Ben & Jerry’s
Is there a flavour for every brand? Or do you think there are some brands that would be tricky to give the Ben & Jerry’s treatment to?

HN: I think there’s an ice cream for every brand, but Ben & Jerry’s specifically may not be the perfect partnership for all. We want to make the best ice cream in the nicest possible way, and we want linked prosperity though the entire process, from raw ingredients all the way to in-home consumption. We aim to love our fans as much as they love us, and we’re all about having fun.

CR: I agree. I think there is an ice cream for every brand, but Ben & Jerry’s has a strong brand identity and values. It would need to be a brand that shares the same mindset and social mission.

Ben & Jerry’s as a company, and as a brand, screams creativity. How do you fuel your own creativity?
HN: To make sure we’re always learning and inspired, we held monthly Cultural Thursdays – pre-Covid – where we’d make a globally inspired lunch as a group.

We also hosted regular fun activities like a candy making day and puff pastry day. The Netflix team happened to visit us on a Cultural Thursday when we explored – and ate – different curries from around the world… It was super fun and very delicious.

We even started a Chefmanship series of kitchen challenges where we’d partner developers with employees from other departments, be presented a challenge, and after three or four weeks we’d all come together and present what we’d come up with. Since last year we’ve taken Chefmanship virtual and have been doing at-home challenges.

A lot of us also have our ‘ice cream making’ music – our kitchen playlists so to speak. At the end of the day, if you keep your senses and imagination open, the creativity will come.

That all sounds amazing! And now we know the best day to swing by the office is a Thursday! How about you Colleen?
CR: It was actually much easier to fuel creativity when we were together as a group! As Haylee mentioned, we would have kitchen challenges with other groups at our office. We also celebrated Pi day in the office pre-Covid – everyone made sweet or savoury pies and we just sat down at lunch and talked about all of them.

We get inspiration from everywhere… Restaurants we’ve been to, magazines we’ve read, food Instagram pages, food shows! I think our team really just loves food and we always seek out new foods to try… We are a curious bunch!

Amazing – now, before I let you go, is there a dream brand out there that you’d love to adapt into a flavour one day?
HN: Personally, I’d love to do a flavour with Brandi Carlile.

CR: I would love to partner with a strong woman-owned business and really show everyone what women can do! I’m a big fan of Andrew McMahon and I think it would be so great to be able to collaborate on a fun music-inspired flavour, and some of the proceeds could go to his charity.

We’ve put it out there, let’s see what happens. Colleen, Haylee, this has been fun – thank you so much for taking time out and hopefully we can catch up again soon!

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