Value in Plain Vanilla

I firmly believe that just about everything is better when chipotle is involved, but apparently that puts me in a distinct minority. That conclusion is based largely on the fact that the most popular flavor of ice creamvanilla. It seemsat least to their palate.

Ice Cream


What makes this fact so interesting, and pertinent to lean, is that there is nothing more plain vanilla than plain vanilla. This strikes me as the epitome of a commodity, so much so that the expression ‘plain vanilla’ is virtually synonymous with the idea of ‘nothing special’; ‘nothing unusual’.

You would think, if you believed the economists, that vanilla ice cream would be very cheap – the only way anyone could sell something so common would be to do so on the basis of having the lowest price. After all, isn’t that what commodities are? Nothing special, not much to distinguish one factories version from another?

Everyone knows that isn’t the case, however. Ben & Jerry’s, Baskin-Robbins, Cold Stone Creamery and a host of others all make a good profit selling plain vanilla ice cream at premium prices. Plain vanilla typically costs the same as all of the more adventurous flavors in the local grocery stores. There is no price war in the ice cream business. There is no race to the bottom – no fundamental economic driver dictating that this – the ultimate commodity – can only be sold by the lowest cost provider. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Instead, everyone selling vanilla ice cream continually looks to up the value proposition – to make their’s sweeter, creamier, more organic, lower in fat, etc…, etc…, etc… Everyone is looking for an edge in the value arena. You would think that something Ben Franklin and George Washington enjoyed would be pretty well perfected by now; that further improvements and refinements would be pretty hard to come by. Obviously no one in the ice cream businesses thinks so, however.

So if vanilla ice cream is not a commodity – not something that only sells when it is cheap, what is? Hard to imagine there is anyone out there making things a whole lot more complicated that vanilla ice cream – the injection molders and screw machine products manufacturers, the sheet metal benders and contract assemblers, the castings houses and extruders, and all the rest – who can’t find a way to create value and succeed on the basis of having the lowest prices. I mean, if outfits from coast to coast can still create value in vanilla ice cream, why can’t everyone create value in whatever they make?

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