Before the pandemic hit, Tyra Banks was preparing for the long-awaited opening of Modelland, a fantastical theme park in Santa Monica that "combines the glamour of 'America's Next Top Model,' the whimsy of Willy Wonka and the magic of Disneyland," according to a press release.
With the opening sadly postponed, Banks refocused her attention on something a little smaller and more Covid-friendly: an ice cream business. After trademarking "Smize Cream" years ago on a whim, she decided to make it a reality. Initially, it was going to live inside Modelland, but with that on hold, she gave it a standalone moment just in time for summer. On Friday, you can visit the first (of many, I'm told) Smize Cream Shop at Santa Monica Place — just steps from the future home of Modelland — or have any seven of her proprietary flavors shipped to your door (within the contiguous United States) on dry ice.
Because Banks is an expert in branding (she even teaches a class on it at Stanford) and possesses a truly wild imagination, Smize Cream is not your average ice cream company. This was made abundantly clear on Wednesday, when Banks and her cast of zany characters welcomed me into their theatrical world.
As we entered the small storefront, which sits in a courtyard of an indoor/outdoor mall, I saw a display case full of cookie dough truffles (more on those later), a massive gold-painted chandelier made of headphones and iconography featuring DJ Splitz, Smize Cream's fictional cartoon mascot, who is inspired by Banks' own mother and featured on all packaging and branding materials.
A man suddenly popped up from behind the counter to crack some cheesy scripted jokes and introduce Banks and Dr. Maya Allen, a self-proclaimed ice cream scientist who is Banks' real, non-scripted partner in developing all the Smize Cream product. They explained how, initially, Banks was going to use an existing company's base for her ice cream, but Allen encouraged her to develop her own. They landed on a custard-style ice cream.
"We have all this IP, all these characters and stories, we're going to do books, TV and movies," Banks explained. "Maya's like, 'We must own our recipes.'" But the ice cream recipe isn't Smize Cream's only point of differentiation.
"I teach personal branding at Stanford business school and on my first day of my lessons with my students, I say, 'Different is better than better,' she continued. "I can't just say my ice cream tastes better. There's so much ice cream. It's an oversaturated market, so what can we do to be different?"
At the bottom of every container — the ice cream is always prepackaged, even in-store — is a big, soft cookie dough truffle. It's called the Smize Surprize. (The brand also has its own language, and it uses a lot of Z's.) Banks says she was inspired by the prizes that came in boxes of Cracker Jacks.
Before we got to taste the Smize Cream, Banks shared another piece of IP with us: "I Want That Smize Cream," Smize Cream's original theme song by (the, again, fictional) DJ Splitz featuring Banks and the artist Stori. Naturally, it will have its own Tik Tok dance challenge that involves vogue-ing with an ice cream container on your head.
Then came the tasting. I'm no ice cream expert — in fact, I'm mildly lactose intolerant, so I usually try to avoid it. But I knew what I was getting myself into, and the stomach ache I had by the time I got home was worth it. I tasted four flavors and had to stop myself from finishing each one so that I'd have room for the next. They were all so good, especially the colorful Purple Cookie Mon-Star & Me and the strangely not-gross Chocolate Barbecue.
But what I was most intrigued by was the branding, and not only because it's so...imaginative. While Banks is certainly doing her part to promote the launch, the visuals are interestingly Tyra-free. Why DJ Splitz and not Tyra Banks?
"I'm so tired of myself," she tells me. "That's why you don't really see me here. I've been in this industry since I was 15 years old and I get more pleasure creating lands and creating opportunity."
At one point, she talked about how, as a result of "divorced dad guilt," her father took her to Disneyland all the time, and she was obsessed with how immersive it was. "Anything I do that's not on TV, I want to immerse people, and this is just the beginning of what this is in terms of the experience. There's a whole world," she explains.
It's also about longevity. "I want to create brands and things that live beyond me," she continues. "I don't care if people know it's me, that's why my face is not anywhere." On a more personal level, DJ Splitz also gave Banks the opportunity to immortalize her mother. "Legacy's important to me. My mother seeing that before she leaves this worth and knowing that she's gonna live forever through this brand means something to me."
Smize Cream also has a mentorship component, The Smize Goalz & Dreamz Factory. To start, the program features a partnership with the mentoring platform Eldera, where young people with specific goals will get matched with experts who are 60+ years old.
"That generation has so much to give us and they can be cool and all of us are going to be old people one day, so I want to celebrate that generation," says Banks.
As Banks herself gets older (though, you couldn't tell by looking at her), she's as busy as ever. She's preparing to host "Dancing With the Stars" and film "Life-Size 3." She says Smize Cream will be expanding quickly, even internationally, and then there's Modelland and the related books, movies and TV shows she promised.
Banks' dream of her own Disney-like universe may be a little out there as far as brand extensions go, but at least it's not another celebrity beauty brand. And if it works, it's a guarantee we'll all be smizing for generations to come.
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