March 1, 2021

Prototype: Bigg Chill, a Yogurt Shop, Succeeds by Keeping Its Cool

SEVERAL years ago, when Pinkberry and Red Mango — sleek frozen-yogurt chains featuring the latest in designer flavors — became all the rage, you might have thought that a strictly old-school fro-yo shop called the Bigg Chill would fold under the competitive pressure.

 The Bigg Chill hasn’t changed much since it opened in 1990 in a nondescript strip mall in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles. Its color scheme is still pink-on-aqua, like a Jane Fonda leotard. There is no dance track on the sound system. And the yogurt flavors veer toward variations of chocolate and vanilla, not green tea or pomegranate.

 And yet, even as the designer yogurt craze may be cooling in this city — and even as a new trend, toward self-serve yogurt, arises — business at the Bigg Chill is booming. On any given night of the week, a line forms out the door, sometimes 20 people long.

 Cary Russell, co-owner of the shop with her mother, Diane Dinow, says the Bigg Chill averages 1,000 customers a day. On weekends, that number rises to 1,300, with cars angling for spaces in the tiny parking lot outside, and a line of customers craning their necks to see the day’s flavors posted on the whiteboard above the counter.

 These numbers are particularly impressive, given how many fads have blazed through this health food capital. Through it all, Ms. Russell has not only survived, but thrived, and her success raised this question: Can it be that sometimes anti-innovation, as it were, is the most innovative route of all?

First, I will say that in my humble opinion, the yogurt at the Bigg Chill, while very good, is hardly the most extraordinary I’ve ever tasted.  Yet on a recent Saturday evening, the Bigg Chill was humming with people of all ages.

 What had brought them there?

  Casey Rea, 19, a Kappa Alpha Theta sorority sister at the University of Southern California, drove a half-hour from her school’s downtown campus for an order of peanut butter and fudge brownie swirl. “I’ve been craving it all week,” she said. “We’re in rush right now, and whenever I crave something sweet, I always come here.”

 Typically, when we think of good examples of branding, we think of companies like Apple, with its ever-changing products and relentlessly inventive marketing campaigns.  But good branding can also be much simpler, boiling down to consistency of quality and, in some cases, just plain consistency.

 Based on an informal poll, most Bigg Chill customers are aware that the store has been around “forever,” as one woman put it, and most proudly volunteer that they have been regulars for years.

 This history has been unintentionally reinforced by Ms. Russell, who refuses to update the store’s décor, not out of any desire to be fashionably retro, but because remodeling would mean that “we’d have to close, and there’s no way I would close.”

 As a result, the Bigg Chill has a very strong sense of “authenticity,” an all-important ingredient in forming consumer connections, and a far more lasting one than the “unique and pleasing sensory environment” of a Pinkberry, according to C. W. Park, a marketing professor at the Marshall School of Business at U.S.C. and editor of the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

 “The feeling of authenticity provides a company with trust and credibility, and other warm, emotional feelings that go with trust and credibility,” he said. “And that is a very powerful tool.”

 That feeling is particularly potent during tough economic times, when people crave a connection to “those good old days,” Mr. Park said. Indeed, two customers likened the Bigg Chill to an old-time ice-cream parlor.

 But, as Mr. Park clarified, it’s possible to stay the same and be out of touch. The Bigg Chill has avoided that, he said, by subtly adapting to trends while maintaining the store’s core identity.

 Hence, when the Pinkberry craze hit in 2006, and briefly took a 30 percent bite out of the Bigg Chill’s business, Ms. Russell spent six months coming up with a recipe for Chill Berry, a tart yogurt, and then heavily promoting it.

 “We had our windows painted, saying, basically, ‘Why have the other berry when you can have the Chill Berry?’ We came out fighting.”

CONCESSION   without compromise is the key to another enduring brand: L.L. Bean, the outdoor clothing company.

 In his new book, “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company,” James L. Witherell explains that one reason the company has been such a consistent success since it opened in 1912 is that “the products stayed the same.”

This is most true of the company’s popular “Bean Boot,” a style that is still available in almost the same form as it was a century ago — at least to a customer’s eye.

 “About 10 years ago, they completed redesigned, modernized and updated the boot,” Mr. Witherell said by telephone from Lewiston, Me. “The material is now better, it’s more comfortable, it lasts longer. But what was important to them was that it look exactly the same as it always has.

 “It’s like the old, original VW Beetle. It changes so gradually that it appears to stay the same,” Mr. Witherell said, quoting Leon Gorman, the L.L. Bean chairman.

 And so it is with the Bigg Chill, where, even though Irish mint, lemon cheesecake and red velvet are now among the flavors, people like Marilyn Lee Schneider — an 11-year regular — still come in on a Saturday night and order a small cup of classic vanilla.


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