When Pan Met Ice - "You can't copy a brand but you can copy a product."
Pan-n-Ice HQ // West London
In terms of brand building, innovation and a total understanding of what their customers want, Pan-n-ice co-founders Henry and Rob have everything nailed.
Friends since they were teenagers, they came across the ‘ice cream rolls’ whilst backpacking in Thailand and realised no one was doing anything similar in the UK. Since that moment, they have never looked back.
They took the idea of making ice cream right in front of your eyes and started to innovate before they even touched down at Heathrow. Since spending that first summer pushing as many events and festivals as they could physically handle, they have nurtured a unique brand culture that continues to create traction.
We first met at the Cannes Lions Festival earlier this year and were amazed by their brand and, more impressively, the fact they are both only 24. More recently, we collaborated with them the Influencer Marketing Show and, we can confirm, their ice cream is awesome.
You've got your flagship store in Shepherds Bush. What other outlets do you have?
Rob: So basically how we work is quite seasonal. For instance, over the summer we work across 10 locations - hopefully, next summer we'll have more. But then around 50% closed down for winter as they’re just pop-ups. At the moment, we've got the flagship in Shepherds Bush, we've got Bluewater in Kent, Birmingham Bullring, and we’re opening at Hamleys in a few weeks.
We were in Selfridges London in the summer, as well as Topshop Oxford Street, Harvey Nichols Knightsbridge and then we do pop-ups in New York as well with Topshop. The plan is to kind of keep rolling out across the UK and start franchising in places like Dubai, Asia, etc - so we're spending a lot of time working that out.
Have you both always been entrepreneurial?
Henry: I've always been interested in starting my own businesses. My uncle runs his own and I always looked up to him when I was growing up.
Although, I actually went to Uni with the end goal of becoming an engineer for Formula 1. Then I started to develop a passion for becoming an entrepreneur. I started reading books, watching YouTube videos - and that’s when I really started to get drawn to the idea of being an entrepreneur, but never necessarily using ice cream.
I was getting really bored at Uni and I hated the academic side of it. Every week I just kept wanting to drop out and I knew it wasn’t for me. I became obsessed with the idea of breaking away and doing my own thing.
Rob: For me, when I was in school I would to go to places like Turkey on holiday and get cheap Adidas hoodies, then I'd bring them back and sell them.
Also, I was really into Richard Branson when I was younger which all started when I was around 11. My dad used to fly Virgin all the time and they used to do this event for the frequent fliers where Richard Branson would have a party in his Oxford house. I remember being 11 and I actually met him. It was all so much fun.
I think the way he (Branson) matches profit with purpose with Virgin is amazing. He encourages being yourself and having fun. I always looked to that and thought that was really, really interesting. Similar to Henry, I didn't necessarily want to start an ice cream brand but I think I was always reading books and then went to Bath uni and studied business. I found a lot of what I learnt there to be very applicable to building the business and I've just really always been into it and wanting, like Henry, to start my own thing.
Rob: I think in Thailand when we saw the idea it wasn't necessarily what we wanted - it wasn't like we went entirely to Thailand wanting to start an ice cream business - we weren't even really looking to start a business that night..
Henry: Not at all! We were pissed.
Rob: Ultimately, I think when we saw it we were just like, ‘right, this is an opportunity to build something that has purpose and we can be ourselves.’ The idea being - it’s ice cream, and everyone loves ice cream. And with that, we can be young, fun and eccentric.
I think you create your own luck in life, but seeing what we did in that moment, I think we were lucky to be in Thailand at that time.
Even at the start, it wasn’t specifically about the ice cream. It was definitely building a brand - is that what you set out to do?
Rob: Yes, literally from the off. I mean, personally, I'm not really a foodie. Henry is more of a foodie than I am.
Henry: You didn't even like ice cream.
Rob: I didn't even like ice cream before, but just the idea of being able to make something that is fun, where you can be yourself and have a laugh doing it, and being able to create that from nothing - that's what really turns me on.
The difference is the brand. You can't copy a brand but you can copy a product. I would say that's what differentiates us - because there are similar products, but it’s the brand that makes us different.
Rob: Another thing I'm glad about is that we started when we were 19-20. We started so young we were literally able to get a tiny little Gazebo and just go to events and make loads of mistakes. I think if Henry and I went to Thailand tomorrow and saw this idea it would just be all so different because now the ice cream roll has taken off.
A lot of life is in the timing, and we got there when the timing of it all was really…. the stars aligned almost in that regard. This ice cream movement hadn't really caught on in Europe and we were genuinely the first people to do it here in the UK.
Henry: Also we were both young, healthy, and doing loads of manual labour. We’d be lugging boxes out of vans at 4am, sleeping in a barn then going to the next event. That first summer was non-stop, it was exhausting.
When you first got back, what was the first thing you did?
Rob: A friend of ours, Aubury Chen, designed the logo for us whilst we were still in Thailand and we ordered the machines (to make the Ice-Creams) while we were still traveling.
Henry: Then we ordered the gazebo and put our branding on everything.
Rob: We didn’t have a clue what we were doing.
Henry: Then the big thing we did was look for places that would have us - like events and festivals.
We searched everywhere asking people - telling them we’ve got this amazing idea. Obviously, we couldn’t show them any pictures of anything - so we showed them YouTube videos of Thai people doing it.
And we were just like; ‘we’ve got this amazing idea, we’re going to start it in the next few weeks, can you let us into your festival?’
So, were festivals the places to start?
Rob: Well, also food events because festivals are quite expensive.
Early on we did Black Heath Festival - but again it was a huge risk to us because the rent was high at the time. Also, we’re turning up to this place and we’ve never made an ice cream before. The machines arrived the day before our first ever event.
Henry: They were supposed to come a month before the event, and they came the day before.
Rob: So much stuff went wrong, but I think our mindset from the off was that we were going to build a brand.
We were going to make something that stands for something. We would tell ourselves, ‘we will go into incredible retail locations and we will franchise and we will have multiple locations.’ I think at the beginning when things went wrong and all our ice pans were breaking - that long-term vision is what carried us through those infancy stages.
You were young and inexperienced, but you had a vision. Experience you can learn, but you can’t nurture a vision in the same way.
Rob: You can't force that vision - it has to come from a pure passion and it's got to be ingrained into you. We were, and are, so passionate. We live and breathe the brand. It’s an absolute obsession of forever wanting to grow this business.
It's amazing. Particularly when you’re so young - you have that naivety that if you fuck up you’re not going to dwell on it. Whereas if you did it now, with experience, it would be totally different.
Henry: Steve Jobs said something similar, in that you always don't know what you've got to lose. You don’t know what you don’t know - so you do things without realising the consequences, which is definitely a good thing.
You’ve mentioned Virgin and Apple, have you modeled yourselves on any other brands?
Rob: I love the way Innocent Smoothies put a story on the back of their bottle. I think what they have done to the smoothie market is created a cultural brand. Whereby, if you think of Innocent, you don't necessarily think of just a juice, you think of something different. Stuff like they put hats on their bottles at Christmas, knitted by old women for charity. It’s those decisions that really set them apart.
Substance translates to traction. In terms of that, your Instagram is doing really well - has that always been the case and how did you grow it?
Rob: I think with Henry and I, we always wanted to just be ourselves in everything we do.
When we’re at events we'll just show the guys the back of house - like we'll mess around, we'll jump in the ballpit, we'll put stories of our delivery driver jumping in the ball pit for example (they have a ball pit in their office) - because that's us, that's what we do. I think it is just that, being as authentic as possible. That applies to social media and also our brand.
We’re always open and honest on our stories. We’re never trying to be really professional - like Ben and Jerry’s or some corporate company. If you go back to the very beginning, we had videos of us dancing in gazebos. And, although people are starting to do that now, at the time when stories had just started, people weren’t really treating them in that way.
But, in terms of followers, you (Henry) went to Social Chain…..
The Story (it’s crazy)
Henry: I’d just got back from Thailand it was my second year of uni and I was watching a Ted Talk featuring a guy called Steve Bartlett. He owns a company called Social Chain in Manchester, and I was really inspired by his story. So I basically contacted his company straight after listening to his Ted Talk, I was like;
Subject: FREE ICE CREAM FOR YOUR WHOLE OFFICE
“Hi my name is Henry,” (basically Steve dropped out of uni and he went to travel around Thailand. So it was a very similar story) -
“ I'm really inspired by Steve’s founders Ted talk. I’d love to come in, I'm willing to make you all free ice creams in the office just to let me come over and meet with him”
I got a response within 10 minutes of sending the email being like, ‘I love your story, we get like a thousand of these a day, and your story stands out to us. We love what you have created so far in your brand and Pan n Ice. Come see Steven tomorrow.”
So I drove to Manchester made them all ice creams and met Steve himself.
What I didn’t realise, was that they own all the biggest social media pages - like Love Food, which has eight million followers, they have huge, huge Instagram pages. So when I was there in return for just giving them free ice creams they made a video of me making the Ice Creams and put it on their Love Food page.
I didn’t even realise because I was making the Ice Creams, but the video was going viral. My phone was buzzing with - “Henry, Pan N Ice are going viral”.
Rob: We were getting 1000s of followers a day.
Henry: It was a joke.
Rob: We've never paid for one post or for one follower, we've never paid for anything - not even influencer content.
What happened at the time, upon reflection, was nuts. Usually, with food marketing, it’s all about making your product as delicious and mouthwatering as possible.
But the content that really took off were the ones that didn’t do that, but provoked a reaction. For example, we made one with a cheeseburger and that literally got - how many views on Facebook? 24 million?
Yeah all organic views.
Rob: When companies re-post them, we’re tagged at the top - so it’s amazing for us. When we first got these viral videos, no one had really seen it before so it was a new thing. Now they’re all over social media so they wouldn’t be as impactful as they once were.
Again, it was perfectly timed.
It’s crazy. Some people probably view that as luck, but if you don’t ask you don’t get. If you didn’t reach out after watching his Ted Talk, none of that would have happened.
Rob: It’s a mindset thing - most times when you message someone like that, they don’t even reply.
Henry: When I contacted him, I knew he’d be getting loads of these - so I knew I needed to add value to what I was saying. Which I did through the free ice cream.
Insane. I think people really react well to your authenticity, particularly through the stories. And your videos provide a consistency of tone. You can also play on nostalgia through your use of products such as Penguin Bars in your videos. Leading on from that, would you say you're creating a British identity at the core of your brand.
Rob: Definitely, I think one thing we know is when we start franchising in Asia and Dubai, those regions love the British. For instance, we have a Union Jack on our cup, we reference our ice cream mixers being British, it’s ingrained in us.
I think I saw the most British thing ever which is a picture of Spencer Matthews at Henley with your Ice Cream. And I thought, that’s very British. But you’ve been to Henley, Secret Garden Party - these quintessentially British locations - when you’re looking to franchise internationally, that’s what you’ll stick to.
Henry: Its core to our identity really, I mean, we have obviously grown up in the UK. We started markets in the places we’ve travelled to in the UK. I think as we continue to expand it will stay with us.
You’ve collaborated with British brands such as Topman and Selfridges. How do you approach getting these partnerships?
Rob: I think again once you adopt the right mindset, you just get things that kind of go your way almost if you’re persistent.
We literally emailed Westfield every week for a year. Never got a reply. Then the CEO of Westfield walks past and sees our stand and wants us to set up there - we move into Westfield and we're literally their busiest stand. Soon after, the likes of Selfridges saw and wanted us - then they wanted us up in Manchester. We just have to keep grinding it out and never stop pushing the brand.
What was the idea behind Bubbas?
Rob: So again in Thailand I always used to say Bubba. And at Uni I'd read about recreating a cultural brand making your customers feel part of a community, part of your family. So Bubba is very fun and playful. We started it at the very beginning of Pan-n-ice and it just kind of stuck. We felt it really resonated really well with our customers. It makes them laugh and it's different - since when would you put Bubba with an ice cream brand.
Henry: And the logo is called ‘Bubzillar’ and he’s the King of Bubbas.
Rob: I was working at Topshop in New York and I saw on salt bae's Instagram that he was in his New York restaurant. I literally left straight away, ran to his restaurant, it was two blocks around the corner and I remember going right up and speaking to him.
I showed him Pan-N-Ice, and then he bought me a coffee, he got some ice cream and then we literally just sat chatting for around 50 minutes. He didn't speak much English, but it was interesting speaking to his business partner about the restaurant’s rise. Before salt bae went viral they had a few restaurants and were turning over 5 - 10 million a year; now they’re turning over hundreds of millions a year.
He literally says the key to that success is Instagram and salt bae himself. It’s amazing how, literally due to Instagram he is this internet sensation. If it wasn't for Instagram salt bae would be nothing and, with the way the world is going, I find salt bae really inspiring. The way he uses Instagram as a channel to then make and build this brand - which is a glorified steak restaurant.
Do you think that the future of brand marketing is in social media?
Rob: Absolutely and I think we are lucky with that because we've grown up with social media - it’s wired into us. Whereas the owner of Fentons, an ice cream competitor in Westfield, probably doesn't know how to log in on Instagram.
When you use brands in your videos, how does that work? Do you offer to have branded content?
Henry: Some brands reach out to us and ask to make an Ice-Cream with their product. We try not to do it too much because we don’t want our feed to look like an advertisement.
Within our videos, we look for iconic products that really stand out. The McFlurry, the Magnum - that people can relate to.
Rob: Speaking of influencers, the other day we saw we were tagged in Joey Essex’s story. He was tagging Pan N Ice and videoing our free hugs (on our menu we have a free hugs sign) and once you start incorporating things like that, it grabs people’s attention. It’s just about doing something a bit different and with that, you can resonate with an influencer without waving a cheque in front of their face.
When did you first get a social media manager?
Rob: March, April, however, we are still very much involved in the process. But it freed us up so much more. Before, we had to post every day, reply to everyone (which we still try to do) - but we’re also focussing on our YouTube channel and other projects.
We try and reply to all the messages and all the tags, because tagging is amazing. The number of tags we get - it’s like having a secret shopper. For instance, say, in Manchester if ‘Jo Blogs’ tags the stand we can just see the Kiosk - see if it’s clean and if the products are being made properly, it’s so useful.
Do you guys still get behind….the pans?
Rob: Oh yeah absolutely, whipping, we call the guys ‘Whippers’. We still love it and do it all the time. It motivates the team, it shows we’re still interested and ready to get our hands dirty.
Would you never want to step away from it?
No, definitely not anytime soon. You learn a lot from the customers! When I'm at a stand I always ask the customers three questions:
- Have you been here before? Yes or no.
- How did you see us? A lot of them say Instagram.
- How is it? And seeing their reaction is really inspiring.
Henry: Direct feedback.
Of course, another thing I have to ask - I read the term Recombinant Innovation - does that relate to your product? In relation to asking how you took the original product from Thailand?
Rob: So it’s like Sir Henry Ford and the industrial line where the product goes on a conveyor belt - everyone thought Henry Ford invented that. However, that concept was from meat packing distributor in Chicago where pigs would go through on, almost like a train and one guy would cut off the head, then the next guy would cut off their legs so on. Henry Ford coined the concept but he didn't make it - that's an example of recombinant innovation.
I think where it applies to us is - someone said to me the other day ‘you just copied it from Thailand’. Yes, we did get the concept from Thailand but making ice cream sexy and fun and making it energetic and playful - that's purely us. Our brand is purely us.
What’s your favourite Instagram account - branded or not.
Rob: Salt bae one hundred percent. I love how organic he is with it - I think it's just so clever.
Henry: I like Ben and Jerry’s’ content.
Rob: It’s cool but it’s super corporate. They use CGI and it’s really expensive. We’ll make our videos on an iPhone camera and it’ll get more views.
Henry: White chocolate caramel banana - it's the first I ever tried in Thailand and it’s so good.
I saw that you’re bringing out quite a few vegan recipes?
Rob: I was going to say my favourite ones at the moment are avocado and coconut.
I'm trying to be healthy and it’s under 140 calories, it's really nice and genuinely after I do not feel guilty. But with this it’s fresh and it's got a fucking avocado in - that's so cool.
Talking to both Rob and Henry you cannot fault their persistence or attitude. However, what is crucial is their use of the tools they have at their disposal. They are a product of a generation that is immersed in digital, and have created a community within that space that feels truly intimate and welcoming.
They could probably build a brand around any product, this one just happens to be delicious.
You can follow Pan-n-ice and their fresh content here.