Wednesday, January 13, 2021
Business

Why Ben & Jerry’s Speaks Out

Why Ben & Jerry’s Speaks Out
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Last year, following the murder of George Floyd by police and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests, the Vermont ice cream maker and Unilever subsidiary Ben & Jerry’s issued perhaps the strongest corporate statement on the matter. Its headline was We Must Dismantle White Supremacy.

On January 7, after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, the company again weighed in quickly and forcefully with social media posts that denounced the “failed coup” and called for President Trump’s impeachment. Since then, a flurry of other companies have announced platform bans, changes in political donation policies and, in some cases, refusals to transact with Trump or his businesses.

How does a global brand, under the umbrella of a leading consumer goods conglomerate, choose when and how to speak out on highly politicized current events?  Why does Ben & Jerry’s take a stand on so many different issues? And what advice does it have for other organizations interested in following its lead?

I spoke via videoconference with Matthew McCarthy, the company’s CEO, and Christopher Miller, head of global activism strategy. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

How does Ben and Jerry’s decide what events it will speak up about?

Miller:  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.

Typically, the impetus would come from the core activism team, but it could also be from Matthew or our board of directors. Most often, it’s coming from all those places at the same time. Particularly with issues like the lynching of George Floyd and the events of last week, we were all watching, and it was clear to us that we had to have something to say.

So the fact that you’d already put a stake in the ground and said, “These are issues we care about,” makes it easier for everyone to immediately get on board with the idea of responding to current events?

McCarthy: I’d like to think that, even absent years’ worth of work on an issue, if something important went down, and we felt like we had an additive point of view that reflected our values, we’d be able to find a way to comment. But, to be sure, when we’ve already worked on an issue and have a language we’ve previously used, it speeds the path to getting the message out. We’re able to move quickly through a number of concentric layers of alignment and sign-off.

We know that the credibility of a track record matters. And that’s not only “How many posts did you put out?“ or “Did you create a nice film that made everybody well up?” It’s being there, being there, being there. The NGO partnerships that Chris and his team have cultivated for years inform what we do. These are people at the grassroots living and breathing these issues, whether it’s criminal justice reform or access to safe voting. And, when we call, they want to help us because they know we’re trying to use the power of our business to get stuff done.

Miller:  Yes, 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 BLM 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.

McCarthy: Intent matters, too. We do these things not to sell more ice cream but because we care about people and have values. All businesses are collections of people with values; it’s a force that’s always there. But, as Chris often says, companies usually make their values known through things like lobbying: money that never sees the light of day. I believe that increasingly, in a world of hyper-transparency, if you’re not making your values known publicly, you’re putting your business and brand at risk.

Do you feel that you’re in a better position to take these stands because you have a more progressive customer base willing to buy ice cream at a higher price point?

Miller:  We sell more ice cream to Walmart than any other retailer, so I don’t think you can look at our consumer base and say they’re more or less liberal than people who buy Haagen-Dazs.

Now, I think the people who follow us on social media may do so because they connect with our values. And that’s good. Many years ago, [co-founder] Ben [Cohen] had this insight that the strongest bond you can create with customers is around a shared set of values. Moving beyond that, it’s just a commercial transaction. We do make a great ice cream. But what drives the loyalty and love for this brand are the things that we believe.

There are lots of people who disagree with our positions, of course. Our statement last summer generated thousands and thousands of phone calls and emails from people who accused us of being anti-law-enforcement or promoting looting and rioting. But we have the courage to feel okay about getting some of that heat, and in some ways, it reinforces that what we’ve done is meaningful.

After George Floyd, I think the companies and brands that tried to navigate the mushy middle — feeling the need to say something but getting concerned about upsetting folks — got the criticism and backlash. It wasn’t companies like ours.

How big is your activism team?

Miller: In the United States, it’s myself and my colleague Jabari Paul and we partner with three or four folks on the marketing team. There are more globally. We usually meet about three times a week. But, when events like this happen, it’s more.

What we put out last Thursday — a threaded tweet — was probably 18 hours of work all in from start to finish, which may seem crazy, but we wanted to get it right and, in this instance, put the company on record. We were on the phone workshopping, laying it out, and then moving it up to my boss and then Matthew. More often than not, what we end up sending on to these guys is 80% to 90% or more of what ends up ultimately going out.

How much does your parent company get involved?

McCarthy: Not a lot. The senior folks leading our businesses, whether they’re in Rotterdam, the United Kingdom, or New Jersey, which is our North American headquarters, are super supportive of what we’re trying to do.

We may disagree at times, but this acquisition, which happened 20 years ago, has been so successful in part because Unilever got a good schooling from [co-founder] Jerry [Greenfield] and Ben about what they had created and what we’re still trying to drive forward. They were also very smart, shrewd guys who put into the sales agreement a certain level of autonomy that would exist in perpetuity, including the creation of an independent board of directors that I sit on and am also partly accountable to. So, there’s a certain level of independence baked in.

That being said, this thing has worked because we all respect that we’re protecting a legacy. Some of what we’ve been fighting for or against for decades is more important now than ever, so we have to redouble our efforts. Meanwhile, Chris and his team are also writing new chapters. And Unilever supports us in that. They know each business has to find its own voice.

What net impact has all this activism had on your business?

Matthew:  We’re seeing strong growth, and we’ve got some good data showing that our fans are aware of our social mission activities, which makes them more supportive of our business and vocal about it. Some of them buy more ice cream as a result. They don’t have to. That’s why we call them fans, not consumers.

You’ve also launched issue-oriented ice cream flavors like Pecan Resist, a nod to Black Lives Matter, and Change the Whirled, with NFL quarterback and racial justice advocate Colin Kaepernick. How do those activist product-development initiatives happen?  

McCarthy:  Our values-led sourcing is in every pint we make. But these purpose pints are maybe the purest representation of our model of using the power of business to drive change. It’s also an opportunity for us to bring levity to some tough issues in a respectful way. We make a lot of ice cream every year, and we have a funnel for advocacy partnerships in the same way we do for innovation.

What’s your policy on corporate political donations?  

It may come as a surprise but Ben & Jerry’s is not partisan. Even in the divisive 2020 election, there was no “Vote Biden” post or press release from us. (Ben did create a flavor for Bernie Sanders called Bernie’s Yearning but that wasn’t the company.) Our activism work tends to focus on the root causes of social injustice which normally leads us to systemic issues. We are political but not in supporting any candidates.

Why do you focus on so many issues? Why not just stick to ones that seem obviously relevant to your business, like GMO labeling or the environment? Is there a danger of spreading yourself too thin?

Miller:  Jay Curley, who leads our integrated marketing team, is fond of saying that if he posted a picture of himself wearing the same shirt on Instagram every day, we’d all unfollow him pretty quickly. People care about a lot of things, and we’re known not just for one issue but for being an activist company on a broad set of progressive values.

So often, companies think they only have permission to talk about things that are somehow directly related to their supply chain. I think companies can take a point of view on anything. But what you don’t want to do is try to appropriate a value that you suspect your customers have. It’s important that your position be rooted in something you deeply believe. People can disagree with our point of view around ending cash bail or the fact that the president needs to go, but they’d have a hard time suggesting that we’re doing it to sell ice cream.

As Matthew stated we need to have other businesses play in the “aspiring social justice business” sandbox. It doesn’t help anyone if it’s just Patagonia, Lush and us. All businesses can find a way to incorporate values into their operations. It’s not just about being goody-goody, it’s good business. It matters to more and more consumers (GenZ and Millenials, we’re looking at you) that businesses take a stance and add value via their actions to our global community.

Do you think the events of 2020 and early 2021 are pushing more companies to move beyond corporate social responsibility to corporate activism? 

Miller:  It matters to more and more consumers (GenZ and Millennials, looking at you) that businesses take a stance and add value to our global community via their actions. We need other businesses play in the “aspiring social justice business” sandbox. It doesn’t help anyone if it’s just Patagonia, Lush, and us. It’s not just about being goody-goody. It’s good business.

McCarthy:  A lot of people say, “But you guys have got Jerry and Ben! What if your company wasn’t founded on values?”

The reality is there’s never a bad moment to start doing the right thing. And in fact, we need you. Don’t delegate this work to other companies. And don’t delegate it your marketing agency either. This is not an exercise to find the perfect brand-cause fit. If you don’t know what you want to do, talk to your staff, get people together, create the space for this discussion around values. You could decide that your thing will be The Humane Society. It could be packing lunches. It can be anything. What it can’t be is nothing.





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