Thanks to the likes of Haagen-Dazs, ice-cream's image has been enhanced in the past few years. Not long ago, ices were almost always made of vegetable fat; they differed from each other in shape, colour and packaging - but rarely in quality. 'Proper' ice-cream, made from cream or milk, is emerging as a boom product of the Nineties.
Its market share has pretty well doubled to 15 per cent in volume terms - with a much greater share in takings - over the past few years, and is set to increase further. It seems to be following the path beaten by 'real' beer, which has steadily replaced less authentic brews.
This trend has softened the effect of the recession. Although the volume of 'impulse-bought' ice-cream was down 11 per cent in 1991 (after a period of rapid growth), its value rose by 3 per cent, as people unable to afford real luxuries went for what Simon Esberger, marketing director of Haagen-Dazs, calls 'small treats'.
The move upmarket has been combined with an assault on the duopoly that has long controlled the industry. Indeed, the market for basic ice-cream, which accounts for four-fifths of the whole, is still highly concentrated. Walls, the Unilever subsidiary, had nearly 39 per cent of a pounds 764m market last year. Limping along a poor second was Lyons Maid, rather neglected by its then parent Allied-Lyons, with a market share which fell from 25 to 18 per cent between 1986 and 1991.
The old order is being attacked by new entrants including Mars, subsidiaries of both Grand Metropolitan and Allied-Lyons and, most recently, Henry Clarke, an American luxury ice- cream entrepreneur. He bought Lyons Maid in February, and is building up a new and aggressive empire.
The market is now divided into basic ice-cream - which may contain non-milk fat - dairy, premium and super-premium. There is a blurred frontier between the latter three in this country: in the United States, they are defined by minimum levels for the proportion of milk fat, and by maximums for the amount of air that can be added. The divisions in Britain show up in prices - a basic litre tub of supermarket ice-cream sells for 60p to 70p a litre, while Haagen-Dazs costs about pounds 6 a litre.
The first assault on Walls's domination came three years ago, when Mars jumped into the market with iced versions of its chocolate bars. Their success proved that impulse ices could be sold for well above the 50p previously considered the upper limit. Then Allied-Lyons put money behind Baskin- Robbins, its American chain of ice- cream parlours, before GrandMet took its big jump, launching the super-premium Haagen-Dazs it bought from US owner Pillsbury in 1989.
But Haagen-Dazs and Baskin-Robbins were operating only at the premium end of the market, which still accounts for less than 15 per cent of sales. The final stage in the revolution was the entry of Henry Clarke, former owner of Haagen-Dazs's great US rival, Klondike. After a frantic couple of years, his company, Clarke Foods, is now the only ice-cream manufacturer in the country to cover the spectrum, from the cheapest lolly to the costliest super-premium bars.
Mars's entry had been dramatic. 'Their timing was impeccable,' says Henry Clarke, 'but it was an extension of their brand franchise, not a new brand.' Within a couple of years the iced versions of Mars and other bars had 11 per cent of the impulse market - and even more by value, since they were far more expensive than their rivals. Sales of choc bars jumped from pounds 33m in 1989 to pounds 75m last year, helped by Walls's counter-attack with the Magnum 'choc-ice on a stick'.
Despite Mars, Walls had 14 of the top 20 impulse brands last year - with sales of pounds 42m for the No 1, Cornetto. Mars had three (including the Mars Bar at No 3), as did Lyons Maid.
MR CLARKE had the right credentials to rebuild Lyons Maid. In 1976 he bought an obscure but up- market brand called Klondike, sold only in Pittsburgh. He multiplied its sales a hundred-fold to dollars 80m before selling out a decade later. Mr Clarke's efforts mirrored those of Haagen- Dazs, and they rose together.
When he sold Klondike he signed a non-competitive agreement. But his three sons wanted him to join them in a business, and all he knew was ice- cream. He had visualised Britain as a promising new outlet for his talents some years earlier, and in 1989, with the Mars-triggered revolution in full swing, he decided to join in.
Being a bluff, confident American entrepreneur, he moved in a big way. First he bought a number of disparate ice-cream businesses from Hillsdown Holdings. They included a few brands, but mostly supplied own-brand ice- cream to supermarkets.
Then came his break, the purchase of Lyons Maid from Allied-Lyons for a mere pounds 13.3m. There followed a period of frantic activity, as Mr Clarke and his sons reorganised the businesses. 'We put together a world-class ice-cream company from a lot of disparate companies in 508 days,' he says. The process involved concentrating production in two modern factories and re-equipping them with frighteningly efficient new machines, including one that could make 200 ice-lollies a minute.
But the equipment was not running at full speed in time for the hot weather earlier this summer, and Mr Clarke was unable to supply some supermarkets, although he has now regained some of the lost sales.
He found that Lyons Maid, though still strong in cinemas, needed a complete revamp. Such well-loved lollies as Zoom were repackaged (with the help of designer Michael Peters) to look less like hangovers from the Sixties, and sales are now responding.
Finally, recalling his success with Klondike, he attacked his old rival Haagen-Dazs head-on. His weapon was the range of super-premium Clarke ice-creams, which he displayed at such nobby events as Wimbledon.
But he will not find the going easy. Walls has not gone into the super-premium market, but its Gino Ginelli is best-selling premium ice-cream (it costs pounds 1.50 to pounds 2 a litre), and it claims 48 per cent of the premium and luxury market. At the other end of the scale, the well-established super-premium brands, such as Loseley and New England, which carved out a small niche for themselves before the Americans appeared, will do their best to hang on to it. More formidably, Allied-Lyons's Baskin-Robbins, which has 60 parlours in Britain selling dairy-grade ice cream, has been increasingly successful since a management revamp a couple of years ago. Baskin-Robbins has the backing of a US network of 2,300 shops.
Then of course, there is Haagen- Dazs, which until 1989 had been confined to the United States, where it was the best-selling premium ice-cream. Now GrandMet is aiming at a series of priority markets, including Britain, Germany and France - where 'it's going even better than it is here', says Simon Esberger.
But there appears to be plenty of room for Clarke and Baskin-Robbins as well. In the US - where all ice- creams are what we would call dairy, and where consumption is three times the seven litres we eat here annually, premium ice-cream accounts for nearly half the ice-cream sold.
Nevertheless, the jury is still out on Mr Clarke, because he is trying to undertake such a complex attack. He has simultaneously to woo the supermarkets, rebuild Lyons Maid, and establish the super-premium Clarke's in the face of fierce competition.
But in the end, his success - and that of every other ice-cream maker - may depend on the weather. According to a Walls spokesman: 'The unseasonably hot weather during the Indian summer of 1991 resulted in a dramatic upturn in impulse ice-cream sales - a peak weekly sale of 53 million portions, against a seasonal average of 33 million.' This year, even the most sophisticated marketers are praying for some late sun.