Ice-cream, activism and puns: How Ben & Jerry’s models purpose in an age of outrage

After the tumultuous events of 2020, when people are looking for brands to do good, many marketers may be turning to the example of Ben & Jerry's.

“We now sit at a critical inflection point in our nation's history. We must be willing to acknowledge the sins of our past so that we move together toward a future of justice and equity.”

These words may sound like the rallying cry of a political leader or activist, but they come from a more unlikely social-justice warrior: ice-cream company Ben & Jerry’s. Its US activism manager, Jabari Paul, made this statement to explain why the Unilever brand was launching a podcast about American white supremacy. Who We Are: a Chronicle of Racism in America, produced with Vox Media and The Who We Are Project, made its debut on 15 September.

For Ben & Jerry’s, the podcast is only the latest action rounding off a busy summer of activism. In June, after the killing of George Floyd in the US ignited Black Lives Matter protests around the world, it was one of the most prominent brands to speak out in support of the movement, encouraging people to tackle "systemic and institutionalised racism" and declaring: "All lives do matter. But all lives will not matter until black lives matter."

A few weeks later, Ben & Jerry’s joined other brands, including Patagonia and The North Face, in pulling all US advertising from Facebook as part of the collective "Stop hate for profit" campaign urging the social network to impose stricter measures against hate speech. 

Then in August, as migrant crossings in the English Channel came back into the spotlight, the ice-cream maker hit out at UK home secretary Priti Patel over her treatment of the crisis, saying on Twitter: “The real crisis is our lack of humanity for people fleeing war, climate change and torture.”

Ben & Jerry’s stance on the migrant crossings was met with some derision, with critics calling for a boycott of the product and Foreign Office minister James Cleverly accusing the company of “virtue signalling”. However, there is also evidence that Ben & Jerry’s outspokenness boosted its brand. Data from YouGov Brand Index found that consumers were more inclined to buy the ice cream a week after its tweet about the migrant crossings. 

Likewise, in July’s Black Lives Matter for Marketers report by The Current, Ben & Jerry’s was recognised as one of the top brand allies, alongside Nike, of the BLM movement. 

In recent years, as purpose-driven marketing has risen to the fore, Ben & Jerry’s has often been cited as one of the brands getting this right. But more than a trend, social activism is one of the ice-cream maker’s founding principles. Now, amid the political, social and cultural upheaval of 2020, many more marketers may be wondering how to model Ben & Jerry’s sense of purpose. 

“Ben & Jerry’s has grown into the environment we find ourselves in today. The brand hasn’t changed, but the environment we’re all living in has come to meet it,” Jon Goldstone, global managing partner of The Brandgym, says. “A lot of the stuff it did early on was incredibly prescient – almost like they had a magic ball they were looking into and could predict the future.” 

Progressive roots

The story of how Ben & Jerry’s built its brand has become popular business lore. It was founded in 1978 by Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield [pictured, above], school friends and misfits who loved food and toyed with opening a restaurant before opting for an ice-cream shop instead. They started their venture out of a renovated petrol station in Burlington, Vermont – one of the most liberal US states, known for its artisan foods, beautiful landscapes and quirky cultural features, such as a spider web farm. 

“When we started the business, it was a lark. We used to say we'd do it for a few years and then become cross-country truck drivers,” Greenfield told the Independent in 1995. 

From the beginning, Cohen and Greenfield’s business embodied the offbeat spirit and progressive values of its founders and hometown. As Ben & Jerry’s grew from a small shop and delivery service to a million-dollar company, the pair realised: “We were not ice-cream guys any more. We were becoming businessmen… it was not our idea of a good time as children of the 60s,” Greenfield once said. “We felt like our business was becoming a cog in the economic machine. We wanted to get out.” 

Instead of abandoning ship, however, they decided to do business differently, by growing it in a way that would support both its employees and the community. Social activism became part of its blueprint, and they pioneered an approach that would later be dubbed the “double dip” – prioritising both profit and people on equal footing. Cohen would say of their philosophy: “What Jerry and I discovered is that there is a spiritual aspect to business… Business has become the most powerful force in our society.”

Over the years, Ben & Jerry’s has campaigned for causes including nature conservation and the environment, criminal justice reform and same-sex marriage. Former chairman Jeff Furman, who led Ben & Jerry’s from the 1980s to his retirement in 2018, called the company a “social justice organisation that sells ice cream to be able to fuel its advocacy work”.

Holding on to its ideals

When Unilever bought Ben & Jerry’s in 2000, there were concerns that the ice-cream makers would sell out and lose sight of their values. At first, things seemed to be heading in that direction: after the acquisition, the initial US financial team who managed it at Unilever put Ben & Jerry’s economic mission ahead of the social one, according to Goldstone, who worked at Unilever between 2012 and 2016, first as vice-president of brand building in the foods and ice-cream division. 

But when Paul Polman took over as chief executive of Unilever in 2009, he set about making the corporation a more socially responsible business – and he drew much inspiration from Ben & Jerry’s, visiting the brand’s headquarters more times than any of his predecessors. By the time Goldstone arrived at Unilever three years later, he observed the “brand living by its founding mission”. 

To this day, what sets it apart from other companies is “a three-part mission statement in which the social, product and economic missions work on the same level”, according to Goldstone. “It’s not like the social mission sits below the economic mission – they operate in parallel and there are always tensions between them.” 

Under its progressive leadership, Ben & Jerry’s has continued to take a stand on heated social issues – even those that are often seen as divisive or risky for a business to address. “They are quite happy to be for some things that they realise a chunk of the population may be against,” Goldstone adds. 

Just in the past decade, for example, it supported the Occupy Wall Street movement against economic inequality and the undue influence of corporations on government. In 2015, it continued its long-running environmental efforts with a campaign to fight climate change, including the launch of a flavour called “Save Our Swirled”. In 2018, it unveiled an anti-Trump flavour, “Pecan Resist”. 

Ben & Jerry’s was an early supporter of Black Lives Matter, too, backing the movement since the killing of teenager Mike Brown by a Ferguson police officer sparked protests in 2014. So it should come as no surprise that the brand spoke out as BLM took off again this year – it was doing so before many other marketers woke up to the issue. 

‘Not cause-related marketing’

Ben & Jerry's stance on racial equality and refugees has received a significant amount of media coverage over the past few months, Sean Greenwood, director of PR and communications for the brand, says.

However, as much as some cynics might agree with Cleverley's verdict that the brand was “virtue signalling” or jumping on trending topics, Greenwood is quick to point out that this “is not cause-related marketing”.

He continues: “The concept is not for us to do something controversial for attention. These actions don’t fall under marketing as an advertising spend.”

At Ben & Jerry’s, there are two separate teams for marketing and activism, but they “work hand in hand”, Greenwood explains. Every Friday, there is an activism committee meeting that brings both groups together – the activism team advises on which issues to tackle and with which partners, while the marketing employees support these initiatives through events and campaign work. “Marketing, especially, is the voice of Ben & Jerry’s, so it’s essential to work collaboratively,” Greenwood adds.

The activism team “tries to focus on one area at a time – most often one major campaign to work on per calendar year”, Greenwood says. But it also reacts to important social issues of the moment, such as George Floyd’s death or the upcoming US presidential election. 

Both events influenced Ben & Jerry’s decision to join the "Stop hate for profit" campaign this year. The company’s leaders have made no secret of their liberal politics and dislike for Trump, and Facebook has come under fire for allowing hate speech, including content that could influence the election, to proliferate on its platform. Greenwood says: “We have stopped all paid advertising for our products on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for the rest of 2020, both to send a message to Facebook and Twitter, and also because this election is just too important.”

However, Ben & Jerry’s will continue to run paid advertising on social media for its activism campaigns focused on racial equality and the US election – an approach consistent with other “Stop hate for profit” participants. 

It is nothing new for Ben & Jerry’s to apply different tactics across its product marketing and activism, relying more on social-media platforms to advance the latter. Goldstone recalls his time at Unilever: “[Ben & Jerry’s] encouraged us to invest our money in things more consistent with their social mission, as opposed to investing in TV. In retrospect, this seems incredibly of the moment.” 

However, it is a more recent development for Ben & Jerry’s to hold Facebook’s feet to the fire. The brand is in tune with its parent Unilever, which has long been a vocal critic of Facebook and previously threatened to pull ads over similar problems. But by staying on the platform to promote its social-justice mission, and continuing to comment on newsworthy events and engage with influencers online, “their visibility has not diminished and their brand is in circulation more than ever before”, Dorothy Burwell, a partner at Finsbury, wrote recently on LinkedIn

As a large, established brand, Ben & Jerry’s is also at an advantage in being able to choose which platforms it uses and how. “Ben & Jerry’s can, of course, afford to take a stand – it won't ostracise itself from Facebook forever and the column inches generated sit neatly in their ethical, 'be good to each other' playbook,” Harry Lang, founder of Brand Architects, says. “Other brands should follow suit but I'll bet there are a number of paid social managers out there who would be forced to choose their career and income over an ethical and, sadly, meaningless ethical stance.”

Burwell wrote: “A cynic would say that the genius in their communications approach means they have figured out how to save on advertising by using politics and 'virtue signalling' to garner publicity. Others might say that having a wider purpose and speaking out with conviction can be a more powerful way to connect with consumers than any image of creatively sweetened, cleverly named dairy products ever would.”

Purpose in the age of outrage

While countless other advertisers have come under fire for purpose-driven marketing that rings hollow, Ben & Jerry’s often gets away with it because of its record. Take the example of Blackout Tuesday in June, when social-media users posted black squares to protest against racism and police brutality. Many brands jumped on this trend and were swiftly chastised for what some saw as an empty gesture, but few criticised Ben & Jerry’s, which has a history of action that runs deep. That is because its approach is “authentic, congruent and consistent”, Goldstone says. 

But what of those marketers who also want to do good, but have never waded into the waters of activism before? “It is a minefield for most brands,” Goldstone warns.

He advises: “Actions at this point are way more powerful than words. Do something that really counts, rather than communicate your support through advertising or social media… Then, once you start to build that foundation of positive actions, it legitimises what you choose to communicate in the future. If you communicate without taking any of those actions, it sets you up for accusations of hypocrisy. That’s the mess a lot of brands got into.”

Marketers that attempt to voice their ideals now are doing so in a different climate from when Ben & Jerry’s got started. For one, “there is more purpose washing than there was maybe five years ago. People are a bit more skeptical than they were,” Lucy Jameson, co-founder of Uncommon Creative Studio, says. “There’s more of a commercial incentive to look like you’re being purposeful.” 

It might have also been simpler to build a purposeful brand before the advent of social media, where the discourse is often polarising. “It’s this cancel culture, age of outrage. People are far more judgmental generally about that stuff because they’ve got an outlet in a way that they didn’t a decade ago. It is harder to get it right,” Jameson says. 

Ben & Jerry’s has also been successful because it strikes the right tone, Jameson and others observe. Its campaigns often contain elements of humour and playfulness, which can be seen in the pun-filled titles of its special ice-cream flavours: “Pecan Resist”, “Save Our Swirled”, “Unfudge Our Future”, “Justice ReMix’d” and so on. 

“Humour always buys grace,” Lang says. “It is the facilitator that allows Ben & Jerry's to speak up without sounding too preachy.”

The ice-cream flavours are also an example of how Ben & Jerry’s mission bleeds into its products – it is not a separate pursuit cordoned off into some “corporate social responsibility” division. “The fact that it goes to their product is one of the things that gives it credibility. You see it as soon as you go into the supermarket. And it’s done with a real sense of humour and wit,” Jameson says. “If you’re a brand trying to do something like that now, you have to have a real, tangible thing.”

‘Be useful, be kind’ 

Of course, “purpose” has been a top buzzword in marketing for a long time, but how much will that matter to consumers after a global pandemic and economic recession? If people are struggling financially, will they care if the brands they buy are doing good too? 

Jameson points out that after the 2008 financial crisis, people’s concern about climate change “went down significantly”. But research into the values of Generation Z suggests that this time around, social issues will not be so easily forgotten despite another downturn.

“The data about Gen Z says that they care about values but they also care about things being cheap in a way that millennials didn’t. They were already conscious about money but they just expect to have both,” Jameson says. 

Goldstone argues: “The reality is that for a very large proportion of the world’s population, it just doesn’t matter whether a brand is purpose-driven or not. On the other side, I think the pandemic will be another catalyst – there’s been a whole series of them – for a lot of brands to behave in a more purpose-led way. There’s a sense of people feeling more vulnerable than ever and looking for brands to help them flourish in increasingly difficult times.”

A good approach for marketers to take, Goldstone says, is the lesson former US president Barack Obama once said he passed along to his two daughters: “Be kind and be useful.” These are qualities that Ben & Jerry’s embodies well, from its confrontations with political leaders to its cheery, colourful ice-cream tubs on supermarket shelves. 

“I think that’s what people are looking for brands to be,” Goldstone says. “Things like coronavirus, global warming, Brexit and Trump’s divisive policies are forces that make people feel wobbly and vulnerable. Brands that are able to be those two things will be the  brands that win.”

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