September 12, 2006

‘Sundae War’ Makes National News

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For years, the marketing mantra has been “Ithaca is Gorges,” but this summer it was the gorges that were on the backburner, while the ice cream sundae craze accompanied by a frenzy of national media coverage and local advertising swept Tompkins County.

The ongoing “Ice Cream Sundae War” between Ithaca and Two Rivers, Wisc. was originally designed to attract interest to the two areas. Both cities have staked a claim as the birthplace of the sweet frozen concoction. However, neither city could have imagined the outpouring of media attention that ensued.

The summertime spoofs included Greg Buckley, the city manager of Two Rivers, arranging for a giant inflatable cow to be dropped off at Mayor Carolyn Peterson’s office in Ithaca as well as prompting over 100 Two Rivers residents to send the Mayor postcards declaring Two Rivers as the rightful origin of the ice cream sundae.

Peterson countered by taking out an advertisement in the local Two Rivers newspaper and composing the City of Ithaca Proclamation, which asserts that “Ithaca shall neither cease, desist nor relinquish its claim” as the birthplace of the ice cream sundae until Two Rivers or another city can provide “verifiable, historical Proof of Sundae Invention predating our own.”

Fred Bonn, director of Ithaca Forward/Tompkins County Convention and Visitors Bureau, saw potential in the lighthearted battle between Ithaca and Two Rivers as a source of publicity.

“Media attention generated 20 million [online] views of Ithaca as it relates to the ice cream sundae, and it never hurts to have your name out there 20 million times.”

The words between these warring towns may have been heated, but the goal was mutual — strike up a simple, yet fun controversy and hope that it remains in the limelight.

“We did not anticipate this much media attention around the event, but the concept in its original form is merely a program that would drive additional restaurant tourism business,” Bonn said.

The concept that Bonn is referring to was a promotion that ran every Sunday in the month of July, in which participating Ithaca restaurants gave away free ice cream sundaes to anyone who ordered an entrée.

This promotion was possible through the generous support of the Purity Ice Cream Company based in Ithaca, which donated 70 tubs of vanilla ice cream that amounted to 3,920 free ice cream sundaes.

Heather Lane, owner of Purity, noted the decision to donate the sundaes was based on a short-term business decision versus a long-term vision.

“It cost Purity money, but I looked at it as giving back to my customers who are loyal to my ice cream. However, we received a lot of name brand recognition as a result of the national news.”

As for the sociological and economic incentives for this marketing ploy, Prof. Mabel Berezin, economic sociology, said, “It’s a good advertising gimmick. It is the kind of little sport that small towns engage in and then put the ice cream sundae on a brochure. It’s the kind of thing that draws attention to the Finger Lakes region as more people are starting to buy summer vacation homes in the area.”

Prof. Richard Swedberg, economic sociology, said, “Ithaca has superb ice cream. Ithaca is a small city in the world, and it has a good reason to claim its identity as an ice cream city.”

Swedberg explained that this is becoming a more newsworthy issue as people are beginning to write more books and stories of this nature.
In fact, last year Michael Turback ’66, author of A Month of Sundaes, The Banana Split Book and More Than a Month of Sundaes, held a book signing at The Big Red Store.

As for the popularity of this story, Bonn suggested, “I think one of the reasons this story garnered so much attention was that it ran during a time when there wasn’t a lot of good news out there.”

The second aspect that breathed life into this story was the “e-mail campaign” that Bonn led to inspire Ithaca residents to vote for this issue on the CBS website so the ice cream sundae controversy would receive coverage.

CBS was not the sole national news coverage that the “Ice Cream Sundae War” received. FOX News, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the August issue of U.S. News and World Report and National Public Radio all covered this raging debate.

This advertising gimmick proved fruitful for Ithaca in more ways than one.
Now, when Cornell and Ithaca College parents arrive in the area for parents’ weekend, they will have a choice of seven local bed and breakfasts which are advertising ice cream sundae packages as a part of the weekend stay.

Aside from the “Ice Cream Sundae” bed and breakfast packages, businesses in Ithaca are more recognizable, and other businesses are interested in cultivating a relationship with the city of Ithaca.

“I came in contact with professional associations, like the Ice Creamers, who collect ice cream memorabilia,” Bonn said. He added that he’s hopeful the Ice Creamers will come to Ithaca and establish an annual convention.

As for now, the mantra still remains “Ithaca is Gorges,” but as this controversy heats up with our compadres from the dairy state, it remains clear that Ithaca will not cease its claim as the ice cream sundae capital of the world.