On Thin Ice

Picture this: It’s lunchtime and you walk over to your nearest office fridge to retrieve your midday nourishment of choice. You swing open the fridge door and there staring you in the face is a frosty bottle of Smirnoff Ice. Your coworker pops up from around the corner, points and yells, “You got iced!”

Sound far-fetched? It might not be. “Icing” is a new drinking game phenomenon that’s gaining popularity on college campuses across the country and, gulp, even in some offices too. What exactly does icing entail, you might ask? The rules are simple: whenever you see a bottle of Ice, whether on its own or presented to you by someone else, you must get down on one knee and chug said bottle. Unless, of course, you are deft enough to be holding another bottle of Ice on your person, in which case you’ve effectively executed an “ice block” and redirected the punishment (or perhaps – depending on your state of mind and the intricacies of your palette – reward) back on to the person who has attempted to ice you.  Okay, this game most likely won’t be taking your office by storm anytime soon, but it has quickly gained nationwide momentum among young adult males.

Unsurprisingly, Icing finds its origins in the hotbed of most true American ingenuity – college frat houses. The game began its ascent as frat brothers (or “bros,” as the anonymous creator of the blog Bros Icing Bros – cited in the article above refers to his brethren) started taking delight in making unsuspecting victims gulp down bottles of Ice at the least convenient of times. Why not just say “No!” to chugging an Ice? Decline to partake and you’ll jeopardize your status as a true bro.

The irony of this situation from Smirnoff’s – and parent company Diageo’s – is hard to ignore.  Suddenly, a product that young adult males would never normally consider purchasing and consuming for social reasons has been made “cool” to purchase and consume on a mass scale – and this change has been spurred by those at the helm of the very social institutions that previously would not condone its consumption.

But the negative perception that may result from the phenomenon could work to diminish the brand. Central to the humor and appeal of Icing is the fact that those who created and propagated the game do not truly endorse consumption of the product; they are in fact making fun of it through a sort of endorsement by non-endorsement (hence, icing someone being seen as punishment for the icee).

So how can Smirnoff embrace Icing and reap its potential benefits without both damaging its own brand and zapping the fun and authenticity out of the game? If they are too blatant in their attempt to commercialize the underground phenomenon, they could quickly turn off these new consumers. The game has gained popularity because it’s original, organic and entirely consumer-generated.  On the other hand, totally ignoring Icing and declining to “laugh with” consumers as the phenomenon spreads may promote the unflattering perception that they are being “laughed at” by consumers.

One way to maneuver between these extremes is to subtly pay homage to Icing in their advertising so that only consumers who are “in the know” understand that Smirnoff is winking at them and encouraging them to play on.

If Icing continues its ironic ascent and sweeps the nation, it will be fascinating to see what, if anything, Smirnoff and Diageo decide to do in reaction, and if they attempt to harvest this consumer-generated phenomenon into providing real value. With any success, they could provide a model for how to navigate and capitalize on similarly dicey situations. In the meantime, if you’re presented an Ice, assume the position and start chugging – or forever surrender your bro-hood.