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In an era where people are “doing it for the gram” and brands are hustling to produce the ultimate social media photo opportunity, the founder and CEO of Museum of Ice Cream, Maryellis Bunn, wants to ensure that the experience is more than Instagram eye candy. So much so, that Bunn (who was named among Forbes’ “30 Under 30” in 2018 and an All-Star in 2019) wonders what a Museum of Ice Cream experience would be like if visitors left their phones at the door.
This sounds counterintuitive for a brand that can attribute a large part of its meteoric success to Instagram, right?
Bunn and her team recently tested this notion at Museum of Ice Cream’s current San Francisco location. Let’s not jump to conclusions. Bunn isn’t implementing a no-phone policy or forcing visitors to leave their phones at the door anytime soon, although she says that at the end of the “device-free” experiment, the consensus among guests was clear: it was the best experience.
“We can give people the opportunity to make choices and the autonomy to not use their phones. And give them an experience that is so mind-blowing, their phone is the last thing they’re thinking about. That’s our goal,” Bunn explains.
In the timespan that Museum of Ice Cream tapped into the cultural zeitgeist with its first limited-run pop-up in the summer of 2016, Bunn and her team have gone beyond IRL activations and developed their own seven-flavor ice cream brand that’s available at Target (with a new flavor launching this summer), a children’s apparel line also available at Target, and a collaboration with Sephora. And they’re just getting started.
Beyond the sprinkle pools, giant popsicles and unicorns, the Museum of Ice Cream’s mission is clear: to unite and inspire the world through imagination (Museum of Ice Cream is an acronym for “Movement of Imagination and Creativity”). With every activation, Bunn aims to create a captivating experience that makes visitors think twice about capturing and sharing the perfect selfie.
“Think about it: when you have the best nights, you’re never on your phone. When I have the best workdays, I’m never on my cell phone.”
The Museum of Ice Cream’s timing couldn’t be better. Look around the next time you’re at a cafe, restaurant or on the subway: you’re likely to find most people staring down at their phones. We might be making connections via direct messages and emails, but we’re not connecting on a human level, and we’re likely not paying attention to the wonder that surrounds us; a shame, because Bunn cites Mother Nature as “the OG of all experience, with sound, smell, touch, and everything you need.” Many recent headlines are noting the increase in depression and other mental health issues, and citing our automatic tendency to capture, comment, share, scroll, and hit refresh on our phones as a large part of the problem.
Bunn continues: “Instagram is an amazing platform, I want make sure that’s really clear. But for us, how do you create connectivity, without feeding into the addiction we’re looking at? It’s about shareability and fostering a feeling of enjoying the moment and presence, without a need for dependancy.”
As a collective, we are distracted and longing for real-life connections. So it’s no coincidence that the most popular course to be taught at Yale University is titled “Psychology and the Good Life” (a.k.a. “Laurie Santos’ Happiness Class”). Bunn and her team at Museum of Ice Cream have consulted with Santos, in addition to several psychologists, to delve deeper into current issues like communication breakdown and lack of connectivity. (Manish Vora, President of Museum of Ice Cream, is a Yale graduate.)
Bunn continues, “In the quest to create human connections, how do we achieve this when the landscape of our lives and how we’re connecting is very much changing? How do you shape and create something that’s going to bring people together, which doesn’t go by the old rule books?
When the Museum of Ice Cream first opened its doors in July 2016 in New York’s Meatpacking District, there was no playbook. Bunn wasn’t sure anyone would show up, but show up they did. Tickets were sold-out for the duration of the limited-run activation, and the reaction was so overwhelming, Museum of Ice Cream has since popped up in three more cities: Los Angeles, Miami and San Francisco, where the first permanent Museum of Ice Cream is located. Amazingly, they built it in 18 days.
While other activations are trying to duplicate Museum of Ice Cream’s recipe for experiential success, there’s a bigger picture beyond ice cream. The essence of what Bunn, Vora, and the team are working to create cannot be replicated.
“It’s always been the intention, to bring people together under a universal love or experience. Ice cream doesn’t have a religion, a race, a gender, or a borderline. It’s happiness, it’s creativity, it’s imagination, it’s nostalgia, it’s memory, and it’s relationships. What ice cream represents allows us to build these rich platforms and allows all these conversations to transpire. It’s beautiful.”
When it comes to spreading joy, it begins with corporate culture, which is a big priority for Bunn. When Museum of Ice Cream first started, they were a team of five people. Today, #TEAMMOIC (as it is referred to) includes almost one thousand people, between the New York City headquarters and the activations. And since happiness is infectious, it’s critical that the team members facilitating the experiences on the ground and interacting with visitors are happy, and helping to foster the connections.
Bunn explains her leadership style: “ I don’t lead my team. My team leads me. It’s about understanding the team members’ strengths, and putting them in a role where they’re strong. For one, our team knows that anything is possible. And they actually go and achieve that impossible piece. We give them the space, resources and free will to go and create. And that’s what I’m most excited to grow: a company that creates experiences that brings people together. It’s not that complicated.”
But it’s not all fun and games (although it might feel that way!), as Bunn and her team are constantly creating, iterating, measuring, workshopping, and analyzing when it comes to upcoming projects.
It looks like they’re closer to reaching that sweet spot of mindfulness, fully enjoying the moment, and creating connections: “We all know that we’re currently distracted, so how do we bring some focus and intention to things? Everyone needs to do their part. And my part is, building a real world that’s so captivating and engaging with humans, that things like dependancy on devices and social media don’t need to be in the conversation. That’s our goal, hopefully we’ll succeed. We’ll keep trying till we do.”
As Museum of Ice Cream has already proven, anything is possible.
March 7, 2019 at 06:08PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs