For some time, ‘doing good’ and ‘doing good business’ seemed to be mutually exclusive concepts. As far as hard-nosed Gordon Gecko types were concerned, greed was good and profit was king. And while that’s definitely the case with a lot of companies, some brands are doing their bit to show that virtue doesn’t need to get in the way of value. Ben & Jerry’s was opened in 1978 after its eponymous founders completed a correspondence course in ice cream making – and the brand has been a by-word for social activism ever since. LBB’s Laura Swinton spoke to Jay Curley, Integrated Marketing Manager at Ben & Jerry’s, to find out more.
LBB> How did ‘Ben & Jerry’s’ go from being a brand of ice cream to becoming a phrase which is pretty much synonymous with the concept of ice cream?
JC> It’s roughly been a 35 year ride. We have very humble, shoe string beginnings. There were two real guys, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, who really didn’t know what to do with their lives. They started a little parlour where they made home made ice cream and it evolved to become a brand that is very much, as you said, synonymous with interesting-tasting ice creams. It’s also a pioneering and values-led business. What’s helped us grow is standing for something and having a point of view.
LBB> Talking of ‘values’, Ben & Jerry’s have been involved in quite a lot of social and political issues over its history – most recently there was the ‘Get the Dough Out of Politics’ campaign in the US and the same-sex marriage lobbying in the UK. So that’s always been part of the brand?
JC> Absolutely. Ben and Jerry never wanted to be businessmen. In the late 70s and early 80s business only really looked out for its own good and was quite exploitative of the communities it operated in. Ben and Jerry almost sold the business and got out at that point because that business model did not appeal to them. Talking with a colleague, they realised that they could actually change the way business operates. Instead of just looking out for the bottom line, they could think holistically about the communities they operated in and really give back. That shift in mind-set got everyone at the operation excited about pioneering a new business model. It has a product goal, an economic goal and a social mission goal. Making the best ice cream, getting the best return for our shareholders and giving back to the community in finding innovative ways to help society – that’s what we try to do.
LBB> It seems a far sighted approach given the current trend for brand transparency and value-driven or cause-driven campaigns.
JC> Ben & Jerry’s was definitely part of a cohort of companies that really became – and it sounds grandiose –enlightened to this idea. In the States it was companies like Patagonia and Stoneyfield and Clif Bar that realised that business can be a positive force in society. It is good to see that that kind of thinking is becoming more pervasive.
I have to say though, one term that we don’t like here at Ben & Jerry’s is ‘cause marketing’. To us ‘cause marketing’ is just an attempt to align a product with an issue to try and make people like the brand. Instead, we have these core values and we want to connect with people who share them. Based on these shared values, we’re going to build real relationships. Something like our stance on marriage equality, which is a big step forward in the UK recently, is very polarising. Not everyone agrees with us and that’s ok – we don’t need to please everyone. In respect to marriage equality, that wasn’t just a case of going ‘oh that’s a cause we could align ourselves with’. Back in the mid-80s Ben & Jerry’s was one of the first companies to extend employee benefits to same sex couples. At the time that was very progressive, no one else was doing it and it was radical. This wasn’t just something that was cooked up in a marketing brainstorm. It’s something that we’ve done and we stand by. As someone who is a marketer, it makes my job easy because it means I get to tell real, authentic stories versus trying to create stuff.
LBB> And, as you said, these are issues which are polarising. Isn’t that a risky strategy?
JC> Ultimately , a lot of CPG companies out there – and this isn’t a knock at them – are driven by consumer wants. So if consumers want a certain thing, they try to deliver that. That’s not to say, when it comes to making ice cream, we don’t deliver what consumers want – of course we do – but we start with our values and we build what we do around that. As far as we can, we build our values into our product. An example of that is a concept we call ‘values-led sourcing’. We try to leverage the full power of the business to create positive change. It involves every decision you make along the supply chain and within your organisation. The biggest impact that we can have is through purchasing of the ingredients that go into our products. We get our dairy from family farms through a programme we call ‘Caring Dairy’. In the US it’s all hormone-free – that stuff’s illegal in the EU anyway. When we can’t get things locally – the dairy comes from the Netherlands in the EU and Vermont in North America – we try to do that in a values-led way. Right now we’re working with Fair Trade International to certify all those products. When we are buying chocolate we’re making sure that the person who is supplying that chocolate is earning a sustainable wage and is growing it sustainably. That means we can give back to those communities in a way that will help them prosper. To us that’s not charity; that’s using our business in a way which will enable people to live better lives.
LBB> And yet with all those values and commitments, the brand isn’t po-faced, it has a sense of humour too.
JC> We try not to be doom and gloom about it. At the end of the day we’re an ice cream company. Ice cream is a joyous thing in people’s lives and we’re a group of people who like to have fun. That’s really what it’s about. While we stand for these serious values, we try not to take ourselves too seriously. That comes across in our visual identity, the weird, funky flavours that we make and the names for those flavours.
LBB> Are there differences in strategy or tone when speaking to different markets?
JC> To a degree. I would say the essence of the brand does not change around the world. But yes, there are slight variations about how we express these values, about how we talk about the product in a way that’s going to resonate with a local audience. The essence of the brand stays the same. And we’re in different stages of development in different countries. In the US we’ve been here 35 years, in the UK it’s been 20 years, in Japan it’s been 12 months.
LBB> Could you talk to us about your Instagram ‘Capture Euphoria’ campaign?
JC> That programme was really driven by the engagement growth we were having within our Instagram community. We wanted to thank that community for being so engaged and wanted to give back in a fun way that we hoped that people would appreciate. That community is very global; we don’t actually have the analytics because they’re not available, but anecdotally we can see we have as many fans in Singapore as we do in Stockholm and the US. We decided to thank and reward them by highlighting them. Rather than just reposting their photos on our Instagram feed, we put them on print or outdoor advertising, right in their ‘physical’ community.
We ended up with the tagline ‘Capture Euphoria’ – we’re very lucky in the sense that people associate that emotion with Ben & Jerry’s. The ice cream is delicious and unique and the brand is really fun – so we’re in a nice space. We wanted to keep the topic open enough so people could express themselves. It’s been amazing. We’ve had over 13,000 submissions and we’ve already run 20 ads around the world already and we’re probably going to do another 20 or so over the next month. It’s been awesome and we get emails back from the folks we’ve involved and they’re so honoured and excited. It’s such a fun programme because it really is giving back to the community.
LBB> Another recent project that caught our eye was the ‘Get the Dough out of Politics campaign’. How did this campaign come about?
JC> Why would even a values-led ice cream company get involved in an issue like that? The issue of money influencing politics certainly is a global issue, but this campaign was US-focused. It started, without getting into a civics lesson, with a Supreme Court ruling. The First Amendment of the constitution is for free speech; the Supreme Court ruled that money was the same as speech and that corporations were the same as people. That ultimately led to the conclusion that corporations could spend unlimited amounts of money funding politicians.
For us that comes back to core value of social justice. It affects everything we stand for, from the environment to economic justice and peace building, so we felt we couldn’t be silent around it. In 2010 we started a non-profit with some other businesses called Business For Democracy. The message was ‘we are business and we don’t want this, we don’t think it’s right for society’.
We evolved that and it became our ‘Dough Out’ campaign. Last year was an election year in the US, so the issue of money in politics was at the forefront. We have a voice, through our community, our social media channels, our packaging and 300 scoop shops around the country. We can use that voice to let people know about this issue and give them an opportunity to take action. It’s the perfect example of us using the power of the business and the voice that we have to stand up for our core values. We can be somewhat provocative around it. We co-produced a video with Good Magazine where ultimately we had caricatures of Romney and Obama pandering to this wealthy elite. We did it in a way that suited our brand tone, which is fun and funny. But it’s a pretty serious message.
LBB> What sort of response have you had so far?
JC> Like a lot of the issues we stand for, there are a variety of reactions. We get a lot of positive responses from people who think more businesses should be standing up – I think that’s the majority. We get people in the middle who ask lots of questions about it. They get technical, they get specific and there’s some really good dialogue. And then you get people on the other side who totally disagree with us. The interesting thing is that a post on our Facebook page around this issue ends up being a place for conversation around the issue. For us that’s a good thing because, as long as it’s relatively respectful, it helps people dig deeper. We don’t want to tell people what to do but we want to make sure they understand the issues and our point of view on it.
LBB> Ben & Jerry’s is owned by Unilever. How does a values-driven approach fit within a large multinational corporation?
JC> Over all, if you’re going to be owned by a large multinational, I strongly recommend Unilever. Relatively speaking, they are progressive and they think about more than the value of the stock price. When Unilever bought Ben & Jerry’s, this stuff wasn’t hidden. They knew we were a values-driven company with a point of view on things. Within the acquisition deal there are some structural things in place to ensure that our values-led approach stays. Ben & Jerry’s has a separate board of directors that oversees our social mission and brand equity, for example.
At the same time, we’ve seen a lot of businesses coming over to the view that they need to give back to society. I think Unilever has been at the forefront of that. Last year Unilever launched the Sustainable Living Plan, through which they are going to double their revenue over the next ten years while halving their carbon foot print and sourcing all of our raw ingredients in a sustainable manner. That will improve the lives of a million stakeholders within the global supply chain. To have a company like Unilever, which is a traditional CPG company, take a progressive stance like that is really heartening. I’d like to think that, in some small way, they see us as an example of a company showing that you can have a point of view, you can give back to society and you don’t have to be a non-profit to do it. Ben & Jerry’s is definitely a profitable company!
LBB> What does 2013 hold for Ben & jerry’s?
JC> In the US, we’re doing what we love to do, which is bringing out fantastic new ice cream and Greek frozen yoghurt flavours. We’re doing a flavour with Tina Fey and 30 Rock around her Liz Lemon character, which is fun.
At the same time there’s the activism. In Europe we’re already 100 per cent Fair Trade and in the US we’ll be there by the end of the year. In Europe and the rest of the world we’re non-GM and in the US, we’ll get there by the end of the year. There are a couple of states which are having balloting around labelling of non-GM products. We’ll be running a campaign to advocate for labelling so consumers have a right to know what’s in their food.
The good news is that, as a society, we’re moving to a place where consumers are demanding more authenticity and transparency. Businesses can move with it or try to fight it. We’re well positioned for that new reality because we’re already doing it.