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Carvel brand refresh taps nostalgia

Carvel Ice Cream will unveil a new yet familiar look at its more than 400 locations in the United States Thursday as part of its “Grand Reopening,” a move that president Gary Bales said was designed to leverage the brand’s decades of good will while appealing to younger customers.

Carvel guests on Thursday will be treated to a free junior soft-serve cone, as well as to the chain’s new interior design and high-tech touches like digital menu boards and digital cake books accessed through a tablet computer.

Bales said Carvel updates its image and interiors as often as any other well-run restaurant company, but this time the systemwide rebrand has the goal of broadening the chain’s appeal with external customers and “internal guests,” meaning Carvel’s employees and franchisees.

“I don’t care who you are, you have to look at the image you’re presenting to the guest and refresh it every so often,” Bales said. “We do that every three to five years, but this time we went further because we looked at our positioning and asked how we could differentiate, collaborate with our franchisees and innovate.”

Carvel’s main differentiators, its 78-year history and the nostalgia built from that, are driving the brand refresh this time around, Bales said. He compared Carvel’s attempt to blend nostalgia with cool new images to the recent success Ford and Chevrolet have had in relaunching their respective Mustang and the Camaro cars.

“We have a lot of great history with the brand, and we needed to bring back the classic, cool look to it,” Bales said.

To do this, Carvel brought back its former script-and-shield logo, but in a modern font. New graphics in units highlight that Carvel hand-makes all of its products, including soft serve, ice cream cakes, hand-scooped ice cream and candy novelties. Brand character Fudgie the Whale is still involved with Carvel, but Bales made no mention of him getting a makeover.

Employees also received new uniforms, which “the kids actually want to wear” and which also have a retro look, Bales said.

Brands in all industry segments have turned to remodeling and reimaging their restaurants the past several years to drive sales and traffic, often rolling them out on a market-by-market basis. Carvel, however, was nimble enough to reopen all its restaurants with the new look at once, Bales said.

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“We have an advantage there; we’re not a real big company,” he said. “With 420 locations, when we put our mind to it, we decided we could get it all done in 90 days. What was terrific is that we had everybody from all departments in our company — from purchasing to training to accounting — out in the field and engaged with our operators.”

The rebranding involved a small amount of incremental training, he added, but Carvel actually took the opportunity to simplify the menu and operations before rolling out the new menu boards or digital cake books. On the customer-facing side, Carvel also simplified its pricing structure into fewer tiers, he said.

High-tech upgrades, such as the digital cake books on tablet computers, were a clear play for the younger demographic, which Bales said came to fruition in test marketing.

The upgrades are happening while Carvel is at a position of strength, he added, as warmer weather and service upgrades yielded same-store sales increases in the high-single digits in the fourth quarter of 2011 and mid-single digits in the first quarter of 2012.

“As all brands age, you have to constantly reinvest in yourself, from the physical plant and the environment to the menu, not just to motivate your guests, but your internal guests as well,” Bales said. “We look at a lot of this as the investment of just being in business. It’s a longer-term build, and you don’t see the return overnight. But with our reimage layering on top of our first quarter, it’s momentum building on momentum.”

Carvel is one of several restaurant concepts owned by Atlanta-based Focus Brands Inc.

Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected].
Follow him on Twitter: @Mark_from_NRN

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