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The Vanilla Ice Cream Effect

Want to pick the most boring strategies and concepts? Then vote on it. If you’d rather stand out and make really cool and bold decisions, you’ll want to avoid the Vanilla Ice Cream Effect. I can help with that.

I first heard about the Vanilla Ice Cream Effect in a presentation given by Eli Altman from A Hundred Monkeys and it was very thought-provoking, so I’d thought I’d share the principle with you—with a little Revel twist, of course.

When you’re part of a decision-making team, rarely does everyone say, “That’s the best choice, we all agree. It’s perfect.” There are usually many different opinions and the larger the group, the more varied the opinions. This is especially true in design and branding where there is a decent amount of subjectivity.

Agree? Of course you do.

When you’re trying to bring all of these opinions together to make one decision as a team, it can be really challenging. Sure, you can eliminate one or two for some reason or another, but you’re still left with a tough choice.

So what do you do? You vote, you jam too many ideas into one concept, or you find some other way to rationalize and decide on one concept. After that, you feel great about your decision. High fives all around! If you were all able to agree, then it must be the best choice, right?



Wrong. All you did was pick the option everyone agreed on, which is typically the most boring one. Sorry.

Buckle up, it’s time for the brilliant vanilla ice cream metaphor.

Imagine you and 10 friends are getting free ice cream. Obviously, that rocks. The only caveat is you have to all get the same flavor. Not quite as cool, but still worth it for free ice cream.

Now, you have to decide which flavor you’re all going to get. Your favorite flavor is butter pecan, someone else’s favorite is Superman, someone else prefers mint chocolate chip, and so on.

After several hours of arguing, some light physical altercations, and lots of hurt feelings, the group will inevitably decide to go with chocolate or vanilla. Is that decision made because those are the two best flavors out there? No. The option is selected because it’s the choice everyone can live with.

Think about this in terms of your company, particularly your marketing. Do you want to be vanilla ice cream or do you want to stand out?
The real challenge is getting your team to agree on non-vanilla ideas. Here are some strategies that may help.

Limit your team

Despite popular belief, getting everyone’s opinion isn’t important. Limit your team to key decision-makers who will be confident in their choices. The more people involved, the harder the process gets.

Take it in steps

If you have a lot of choices, try discussing them in waves. Having too many options at once can overload the brain and not allow your team to think critically about each one. Try two to three options at a time and go from there.

Think about your goals

This one is pretty simple. Reiterate your goals. Then, look at your options and decide which course you feel best meets the objective—even if that conflicts with your personal opinion.

Take another perspective

Try to put yourself in the shoes of your audience (or whoever your decision is affecting). Remember, it’s not about what you think; it’s about what they think.

Get weird

Being different is a good thing. Make choices that separate you from the pack. If you’re a little nervous about a concept, that is probably a good thing.

You may not believe me now, but the Vanilla Ice Cream Effect is real. Just wait till you’re in the conference room with your “action team.” This idea is all you’ll be able to think about, and you just might save yourself from boring, consensus choices.

Now, I expect to see some really great stuff out of you. If you need some help, you know where to find us.

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