24 May 2023
Ben & Jerry’s – Ice Cream With a Vision to Change the World
“We believe that ice cream can change the world. We love making ice cream—but using our business to make the world a better place gives our work its meaning.” How’s that for a thought-provoking corporate mission?
Ben & Jerry’s were a purpose-led brand before the concept existed, and long before it became cool. Purpose has been at the core of their brand since its inception in 1978 in a renovated Vermont gas station. They have a long record of supporting political causes that include criminal justice reform, voter registration, campaign finance reform and climate justice.
In the UK, in recent times, they have been a real thorn in the side of government on the migrant issue, calling out the lack of safe routes into the UK, mobilizing people to attend demonstrations and providing links to email local MPs. Alastair Campbell in a recent episode of The Rest is Politics podcast praised the caliber of the information provided by Ben and Jerry’s on the migrant issue saying it was on a par with that provided by the best of the NGOs.
At Davos this year, Richard Edelman presenting the 23rd Edelman Trust Barometer report, and talking about social activism, observed: “This is smart business, not woke delusion.”
The Edelman research, which questioned 32,000 people across 28 countries, finds Business is the only institution seen as competent and ethical and 85% of those surveyed say they want CEOs to take a public stand. 63% agree with the statement, “I buy or advocate for brands based on my beliefs and values”, and 69% say having societal impact is a major factor when considering a job.
You’ve heard of greenwashing, well let me introduce you to “social washing” – which many companies were called out on in the wake of MeToo or Black Lives Matter. Tokenism, jumping on the band wagon way on social issues is a high-risk strategy. If you don’t walk the talk you are storing up trouble for yourselves, as Amazon and L’Oréal found to their cost when called out on their own actions in relation to racial equality.
So how does Ben & Jerry’s’s address this? Here is what Christopher Miller their Head of Global Activism Strategy, told HBR: “We have this ongoing body of activism and advocacy that are rooted in our values. We have a team of social mission folks with an NGO or policy background paired with a world-class marketing team that knows how to connect with our fans and sell ideas. So, when things happen, we have this privilege, power, and ability to communicate. …. The team and I manage a pretty big constellation of friends and allies and partners, and so we make sure to gut check any response with them. In the Black Lives Matter statement, we had four very specific policy recommendations. We don’t make that up in a conference room at our corporate headquarters. We amplify the voices of those on the front lines, who know the solutions we need to bring to the table.”
Many wondered how the outspoken purpose-led approach of Ben and Jerry’s would work when Unilever acquired them in 2000. The foresight to put in tight corporate governance protections has for the large part worked well, although there was a fascinating spat when Ben and Jerry’s sued Unilever over its decision to sell the Ben and Jerry’s brand in Israel to a third party. (This followed a decision by Ben and Jerry’s not to sell its products in the occupied West Bank because it was inconsistent with its values.) The UK government would undoubtedly be happier if this incident had put a stop to Ben and Jerry’s activism on the migrant issue – but there is no sign of this, for which I for one am very grateful.
Having once held the position of International Brand Manager for Magnum (also owned by Unilever), I thought that I had the best ice cream job in the world. I’m not quite so sure now …. Head of Global Activism Strategy at Ben and Jerry’s would give it a run for its money!