What news media can learn from the Museum of Ice Cream

By Kathleen Coleman

S-R Media

Spokane, Washington, USA


There are experiences that make you feel old, like trying to find your size in maxi-dresses at Forever 21.

Some hints that you are old are more obvious. For example, hearing from behind — while memorialising and slowing down — at the start of the Central Park AIDS Walk: “I would move, brah, if that old lady would stop taking pictures.”


Sometimes it’s not fashion or photo etiquette that trips you up. Sometimes it’s just Not Getting It.

Creators of the Museum of Ice Cream recognise the power of experience.
Creators of the Museum of Ice Cream recognise the power of experience.

“I’ve tried, unsuccessfully, to process the content of this article,” wrote a friend on Facebook, who shared on his timeline a New York Magazine story titled “The Millennial Walt Disney Wants to Turn Empty Stores Into Instagram Playgrounds.” 

Smart and enterprising Maryellis Bunn, a 25-year-old creative strategist with impressive client cred (Time Inc., Staples, Fortune, Facebook), gets it. It would behoove us in media land to get the conceptual it, too.

Her observations: Brick-and-mortar retailers, closing. Traditional museums, boring. Disneyland, which she visited recently and found lacking: “The park didn’t optimise for social engagement,” Bunn said, in the NY Magazine piece by Anna Wiener. Wrote Wiener, “Millennials don’t have the attention span.”

Said Bunn, “Our generation doesn’t want to spend six hours doing anything. I love Disneyland, but it’s just not … it’s not for today.”

With business partner Manish Vora, Bunn launched the Museum of Ice Cream, which is not in fact a museum. Instead it’s a pink, glittery, and sumptuous “experience” where one reportedly pays between US$12 to US$38 at pop-up locations to lose oneself in attractive tableaus ready-made for social media sharing. It takes average MOIC visitors 45 minutes to take it all in.

Birthed in Manhattan, the Museum of Ice Cream then blew cross-country to Los Angeles and is now available for experience-seekers in San Francisco, in a landmarked 1910 former bank building (“previously occupied by Emporio Armani,” Wiener wrote). It’s not surprising that a former Bunn client is Instagram.

“ … She envisioned an interactive, happy place that felt current with the social current, aka taking nonstop selfies, and just made people feel good,’’ wrote Anne Vorrasi of the Museum of Ice Cream in InStyle Magazine, July 12, 2017.

Interviewed by Susan Adams for Forbes Trep Talks on May 19, 2017, Bunn revealed, why the focus on ice cream: “I love ice cream. Any day of the week it brings me so much joy,” Bunn said. And what exhibits would be on display at the museum? “I grew up by the ocean and I thought it would be so amazing if the ocean were full of sprinkles and I could swim in them.” 

Indeed, the Museum of Ice Cream features a four-foot-deep swimming pool with colorful plastic, antimicrobial sprinkles, as well as a rock candy cave room, banana swings, and a space with giant melting popsicles. Of course America’s favourite treat, ice cream, is a unifying theme.

“Every room featured an interactive component: something to eat, touch, or smell,” Wiener wrote. (One of the rooms has scented wallpaper.)

One hopes not lickable wallpaper ala “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” but hey, who am I to judge? Especially when considering the ridiculous (OK, enviable) financial results Bunn and Vora have already achieved. Revenue from ticket sales from the first two iterations (in Manhattan and Los Angeles) so far has topped US$6 million (L.A. MOIC runs through December 2017).

Corporate sponsors are keen on the MOIC concept. Dove, which distributed chocolate at the Los Angeles location, saw a 9% sales hike in its Promises line. The Museum of Ice Cream’s San Francisco location is sponsored by American Express, which offers ticket pre-sales, and whose logotype appears discreetly on tickets and on a small sign in the gift shop.

Bunn and company taste test local ice creamery offerings to decide which will have the right to donate dairy treats for brand exposure at MOIC. The Los Angeles pop-up location charged US$180,000 for day-long private events. And a product team is hard at work concocting Museum of Ice Cream-branded ice cream. “Sample flavors like one called ‘Sprinkle Pool,’ are served (in San Francisco),” wrote Caleb Pershan on Eater San Francisco on September 14, 2017.

In line with the ethos of many Millennials, the MOIC selects local charity partners to benefit from some of its revenue; in San Francisco, it’s Creative Growth, which serves artists with disabilities. The San Francisco exhibit is open through February 2018; tickets are sold out. Bunn reported in the May Forbes piece that she’s heard from people in Abu Dhabi and Japan who “want a Museum of Ice Cream.”

What experiences could newspapers and news media curate for a price?

“Kathleen turns in first-round budgets to the publisher.” (Cue door opening, hand flinging in reams of paper, lion roaring.)

“Sales executive explains local versus. local general rates.” (Cue falling into a Kreskin-esque painted wall alongside randomly placed velvet fainting couches.)

All kidding aside, many newspapers and news media companies already offer subscribers ticketed admittance to “ride along” on things their staff members do well: Hiking then rating local trails. Shopping for then cooking a gourmet meal. Viewing then critiquing a symphony performance. Reading then discussing a bestseller.

But it seems well beyond time that our marketing teams begin to help our clients create “experiential” offerings to sell alongside wares shoppers can pick up and take home.

Bunn is on to something, no doubt.

A fascinating October 7, 2014, story by James Hamblin for The Atlantic magazine shares research that suggests owning something material can’t measure up to people’s anticipation of something (a trip, a concert, or a recreational excursion, for example). In fact, if the experience is delayed, that in and of itself can become a positive, wrote Hamblin.

“The most interesting part of the new research, to Kumar, was the part that ‘implies that there might be notable real-world consequences to this study.’ It involved analysis of news stories about people waiting in long lines to make a consumer transaction. Those waiting for experiences were in better moods than those waiting for material goods. ‘You read these stories about people rioting, pepper-spraying, treating each other badly when they have to wait,’ he said.

It turns out, those sorts of stories are much more likely to occur when people are waiting to acquire a possession than an experience. When people are waiting to get concert tickets or in line at a new food truck, their moods tend to be much more positive,” Hamblin wrote.

“There are actually instances of positivity when people are waiting for experiences,” Kumar said, like talking to other people in the concert line about what songs Vampire Weekend might play. So there is opportunity to connect with other people.

“We know that social interaction is one of the most important determinants of human happiness, so if people are talking with each other, being nice to one another in the line, its going to be a lot more pleasant experience than if they're being mean to each other which is what's (more) likely to happen when people are waiting for material goods.”

So the key is to curate and create experiences both memorable and friendly, iPhone snap-able and Instagram shareable.

It would be easy to roll one’s eyes at Bunn and Vora’s MOIC creation. It really would. But how hard is it to dislike a company with team member titles such as “Dog Instagram Expert (Head of Content & Social),” “Merch Masta (Head of Retail),” and “Ping Pong Understudy (Head of Operations L.A.).”

In an age where reality and non-reality are so blurred that a young man recently went onstage minutes before a Broadway play and began to plug his phone into a wall socket that was actually a prop, perhaps we should proceed with caution. 

But it’s hard to begrudge the resourceful Bunn, whose morning ritual, according to InStyle magazine, consists of this: “Breakfast is devoured the minute she wakes up. Then she squeezes in a workout and reads the paper before getting to work.”

For your newspaper readership, Bunn, we are grateful. Perhaps you could teach us, please, to rethink and reengage audiences beyond snarky comments shared via Disqus, in novel, viscerally appealing, and shareable ways.

As to earlier bewilderment about the Museum of Ice Cream, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. But acting on one or the other would certainly be experiential.

About Kathleen Coleman

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