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How Ben & Jerry’s Took Both Its Ice Cream and Mission Global

How Ben & Jerry’s Took Both Its Ice Cream and Mission Global

Sarah Steimer

save our swirled

Ben & Jerry’s values are baked (nay, frozen) into its culture and its ice cream, and the company has taken to exporting those beliefs by way of pints and petitions

Ben & Jerry’s celebrated its entrance into the U.K. in 1994 in its trademark quirky manner: by creating a special flavor with a funky name. Cool Britannia, a strawberry ice cream with chocolate-covered shortbread cookies and a fudge swirl, has since been retired to the company’s famed Flavor Graveyard outside its Waterbury, Vermont, factory. The company’s leap across the pond and into new markets has, on the other hand, flourished.

By way of the U.K., Ben & Jerry’s entered other European countries, then Singapore in 2005, Australia in 2009, Japan in 2012, Brazil in 2014 and Thailand in 2016. In total, the brand’s ice cream can now be found in 35 countries. The company sometimes makes a few special tweaks to its marketing and flavors, depending on the location. Some countries get flavors not found in the U.S. (Minter Wonderland in the U.K. and Ireland, If I Had 1,000,000 Flavours in Canada, Maccha Made in Heaven in Japan), and Ben & Jerry’s will occasionally adjust the formulas if their pints are considered a bit large for a market such as Japan, or have names that are a bit too goofy for a serious food culture such as France.

Get Started Growing Your Skills

By and large, though, much of what fans around the globe find in scoop shops and freezers stays true to the company’s funky, hippie culture that began in 1978. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield started the company in a renovated gas station in Vermont, a far cry from its shops in São Paulo, Brazil, or Auckland, New Zealand. The company introduces itself to new customers in much the same way the founders did in 1986 when they drove their “Cowmobile” across the U.S., handing out free ice cream.

“When we enter a country, in year one, our focus is establishing ourselves as the best ice cream,” Ben & Jerry’s CMO Dave Stever says. “It’s all about the chunks, the swirls and then it’s about the ingredients and the values-led sourcing of all those ingredients. As we continue, we’ll bring the activism along as well.”


Entering a new market means bringing the Ben & Jerry’s mission along with the product, and when either is presented in tandem with the iconic green hills, spotted cows and blue skies, fans know it’s authentic Ben & Jerry’s.

Values-based Product

Taking a stand has been part of the Ben & Jerry’s mission from the start. The Ben & Jerry’s Foundation was established in 1985 with a gift from Cohen, Greenfield and 7.5% of the company’s annual pre-tax profits to fund community-oriented projects. The company’s involvement in the community—global and local—has grown since.

“We believe that the strongest bond you can build with your consumers is over shared values,” Stever says. “There was an interview once with Ben and he was talking about the social mission and the interviewer said, ‘Isn’t your social mission just good marketing?’ Ben kind of gruffed and said, ‘If having a social mission is good marketing then let’s hope more businesses do good marketing.’ ”

David Horowitz, creative director at Mekanism, where Ben & Jerry’s moved its lead creative account in 2014, says the ice cream company’s values drive the business. It’s part of their marketing, he says, not a separate piece. Ben & Jerry’s doesn’t use the issues it promotes to sell ice cream, Horowitz says, but the ice cream is often used to amplify a message. For instance, the company launched Empower Mint to coincide with the 2016 election year and voter rights. “They see the ice cream as a vehicle that can shed light on these bigger social issues,” Horowitz says.

Ben & Jerry’s knows product launches gain national and international attention, which provides a platform for messaging on values. Cause marketing isn’t unique to the company, but it can come across as opportunistic for many brands. For instance, Gucci’s “Chime for Change” concert garnered little attention, despite headliners such as Beyoncé, Madonna and Jennifer Lopez. Adam Kleinberg, CEO of advertising agency Traction, says Gucci’s efforts rang hollow: there was no obvious tie between the brand’s air of elitism and the campaign’s goal of raising women’s voices.

“There are some brands that have really built a positioning around a core audience,” Kleinberg says. “You take Patagonia and its stance on environmental issues: Their customers are pretty much all environmentalists. It makes a lot of sense, and taking that moral position for them has been really effective. Often brands with the best intentions will pick a cause that they care about, and they’ll try to make a gimmicky attempt that doesn’t do much for their brand.”

Horowitz says the way Ben & Jerry’s has positioned itself throughout its history allows the company to talk with fans about its chosen causes.

“In marketing, when it feels like a brand is trying to attach itself to a cause, it can ring false,” Horowitz says. “With Ben and Jerry’s, [social values are] integral to their mission. That’s always something that people have associated with Ben and Jerry’s. When [the brand] talks about climate change or talks about voting rights, it doesn’t feel opportunistic. It feels like a true expression of what the company believes, and that’s why it goes right.”

Jay Curley, Ben & Jerry’s senior global marketing manager, told New York Magazine this spring that he considers one-third of his job to be an activist campaign manager. He told the magazine that the company’s employees get just as excited about brainstorming ways to further movements as they do about a new flavor.

Fair-trade, GMO-free Messaging

Consumers in the U.S. know the Ben & Jerry’s model: ice cream flavors named after jam bands and musicians coupled with peace-loving and justice-seeking rhetoric. How this translates to countries less familiar with Jerry Garcia—let alone his namesake flavor, Cherry Garcia—is a little trickier. Yet Ben & Jerry’s has a built-in solution to introducing its values to new markets: the product itself.

Look up any flavor of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream online, and you’ll get a full listing of ingredients as well as a description of “values-led sourcing.” For example, the product may be free of genetically modified organisms, include cage-free eggs and other fair-trade products, and it’s wrapped up in responsibly sourced packaging.

“Their values are infused in their product to begin with,” Horowitz says. “How they source their ingredients, the removal of [genetically modified organisms] from their products, the Caring Dairy program. From a product standpoint, their values aren’t something separate. They’re part of the actual ice cream that they make.”

The company’s “2015 Social & Environmental Assessment Report” details milestones on reducing its carbon footprint (this includes placing a self-imposed price on carbon of $10 for every metric ton of greenhouse gas Ben & Jerry’s emits from its U.S. operations); rewriting its Caring Dairy program, which evaluates dairy farms against a set of economic, social and environmental criteria; completing the conversion of its sourced ingredients to those that are fair-trade and non-GMO; and boosting its Producer Development Initiative program. These programs are enacted globally—and sometimes even have more success overseas. For instance, 22.1% of chunks and swirls were purchased from values-led suppliers in North America in 2015, compared to 37.9% in Europe. The company also fully harmonized its Caring Dairy program over all its global regions.

Ben & Jerry’s is one of about 2,000 certified B-Corp companies, a for-profit organizational designation bestowed on companies that meet standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency. Stever says the designation brings companies together that want to make a difference in the world, and Ben & Jerry’s has partnered with such companies as values-led sourcing suppliers. The collaborative approach has moved beyond the supply chain, as the company seeks out partners to help translate their values to new markets.

“When we have a campaign, we build a relationship with a local partner,” Stever says. “That guides us as far as our approach, our tone, what consumers are expecting from us. We’re not experts on all these issues. We bring in experts to guide us through those waters. It’s been a great way for us to bring the ice cream and the fun to these issues, where the experts bring the knowledge and the deep understanding of how far we can go with consumers. We don’t want to be a cause marketer, we want to be at the front end of social issues.”

One close connection, however—Unilever’s ownership of Ben & Jerry’s—has been a source of indirect conflict in the ice cream maker’s environmental stewardship work. Ben & Jerry’s worked with other Australian organizations to campaign against a $21 billion coal mine with the slogan, “Scoop ice cream, not coal!” The blowback against Ben & Jerry’s came hard and fast by way of Australian MP George Christensen, who called for a boycott of Ben & Jerry’s. Christensen accused the company of hypocrisy because of Unilever’s relationship with Wilmar, whose sugar mills are at the center of a dispute with Australian cane growers. Amnesty International found Wilmar’s Indonesian operations source palm oil directly supplied or in part from regions with severe labor rights abuses.

“Sometimes we’ll be a little more progressive than our parent company, and that’s natural,” Stever says. “We’re able to coexist and understand that. There are certain things that we will be for that Unilever may not be for at this point in time. That’s natural and that’s a great tension to have. Along the way [Unilever has] made us better and I think we’ve made them better as well.”

Out of the Carton and Onto the Streets

Ben & Jerry’s participation in movements hasn’t been confined to its ingredients, but includes almost any global or local issue it deems important. Its involvement escalated on a worldwide level ahead of the 2015 Paris climate talks.

Part of the company’s climate change campaign included a new flavor, Save Our Swirled, made of raspberry ice cream, marshmallow and raspberry swirls and dark-and-white fudge ice cream cones. The flavor itself had layers of symbolism: The name was abbreviated to S.O.S. on the lid to urge immediate action, and the tiny cones in each spoonful were meant to give the impression of melting ice cream. The campaign took to the road in an emissions-free, retro-fitted Tesla ice cream vehicle to spread the message, and the company partnered with the community-based organization Avaaz to pull together signatures to be delivered to the United Nations. The flavor launched in 35 countries, 10 of which hosted climate marches with Ben & Jerry’s employees.

On the campaign assets side, Horowitz says the agency created work that could be easily translated from country to country, including a melting ice cream video. Horowitz says the various markets Ben & Jerry’s exists in have some autonomy as well, providing each market the opportunity to use the campaign in a way that fits their media landscape and local initiatives around an issue.

Ben & Jerry’s delivered more than 10% of the 3 million signatures Avaaz presented to former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in Paris. Its involvement in climate change conversations hasn’t dissipated; the company released a sarcastic statement after President Donald Trump pulled out of the Paris climate agreement, titled “6 Reasons Pulling Out of the Paris Climate Agreement Was Totally, Definitely the Right Move.”

Be it for new flavors or movements—Ben & Jerry’s isn’t campaigning by putting a message in a bottle and launching it into the ocean—or, rather, printing its missives on cartons to be skimmed through a frosted freezer door. Like many brands, the company has taken to the role of media creator. In his New York Magazine article, Jay Curley claims that if Ben & Jerry’s had not been involved in the April 2016 Democracy Awakening event in Washington, D.C., it may not have been covered at all. Ben & Jerry’s brought along two videographers, a photographer and a writer to the event. One of the resulting articles about the arrests of a couple Ben & Jerry’s board members, its social mission manager, and Cohen and Greenfield themselves went viral and crashed the Ben & Jerry’s website.

“The trend in marketing is to move from being marketers to publishers,” Stever says. “Last year we produced 50 videos, we had 500 blog posts and year-to-date we’ve created 163 unique blogs, which is up 30% from last year. Our fans are connecting with us even more and it’s where we tell our stories. The beauty of Ben & Jerry’s is we’re not creating stories, we’re actually just telling our fans what the company is doing.”

Even when tackling serious issues, the company keeps it playful. To promote marriage equality in Australia this spring, the company announced no same-flavor ice cream scoops will be served at their Australian stores until same-sex marriage is legalized. Their campaigns often have cheeky slogans (“Less waffle. More action.”) accompanied by their iconic cow mascot, Woody, and the Ben & Jerry’s font. Stever says a big reason for maintaining the company’s joyful image on serious topics is to make the topics more accessible. He quotes activist Emma Goldman, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution.”

“To me, that’s our mantra” Stever says. “We do know that these are serious issues, but we feel our role is to make the issues approachable and make them feel to consumers that they’re not so daunting. There are things they can do and they can get involved.”

It’s Not Everyone’s Taste

Regardless of how accessible Ben & Jerry’s tries to make its activist campaigns, it doesn’t take a long browse of their Facebook or Twitter pages to see not everyone thinks an ice cream company should take a stand on issues unrelated to frozen dessert. A link on the Ben &  Jerry’s Facebook page referring to U.S. states that accept the most refugees resulted in a few comments calling for a boycott of the company and the topic’s irrelevance to ice cream. On the other hand, there were just as many or more comments supporting the company’s stance, along with one humorous reply of “[I]t’s time to stop pussyfooting around the real issues and talk about the cruel & unusual detention of the real, original Brownie Batter.”

There is a monetary case to be made for marketing with a purpose: A 2015 Cone Communications/Ebiquity Global CSR study found 90% of U.S. shoppers are likely to switch to a cause-branded product when choosing between two brands of equal quality and price. Unilever CMO Keith Weed told an audience at his annual Cannes Lions talk in 2016 that brands focused on sustainability delivered nearly half the company’s growth in the previous year. Weed said that Unilever’s brands that have a purpose at the core of their marketing grow 30 times faster than others.

Ben & Jerry’s knows that its messaging isn’t for everyone. It’s faced criticism over its products and stances from the likes of media morality advocate One Million Moms calling for a boycott of the “Saturday Night Live”-inspired flavor Schweddy Balls, and from pro-police movement Blue Lives Matter, which took issue with the company’s support of racial justice movement Black Lives Matter. The company isn’t slowing down on its involvement in movements, though. Christopher Miller, social mission activism manager at Ben & Jerry’s, told the Sustainable Brands conference this spring that “Pissing off some of your customers is one of the smartest decisions you can make.”

At the conference Miller predicted that companies are becoming a more powerful force in society than some nation states and that corporations would need to address social issues. He cautioned companies against brand activism campaigns that focus on traditional ROI measures (á la Pepsi and Kendall Jenner). “If you do it in an authentic, credible way, it will ultimately be good for business,” Miller told the crowd. Unlike many cause marketing campaigns that pick up on what’s important to fans, he says Ben & Jerry’s starts with its own values. Greenfield has been quoted in this same vein: “The most powerful bond you can make with your consumers is around a shared set of values.”

Ben & Jerry’s is embarking on, arguably, some of its most controversial work yet: equity. The global issue will have a localized angle that speaks to each specific market. In the U.S., Ben & Jerry’s is looking to tackle systemic racism, and in Europe it’s been focused on refugee justice. If nothing else, the topics are a sure-fire way of dividing the audience.

“By Ben & Jerry’s taking a stand with something like immigrants’ rights, they may do it with the understanding that 50% of people will never buy their ice cream,” Kleinberg says. “If it makes the other 50% three times as likely, then they’re coming out ahead.”

Kleinberg says taking on coal or refugee rights may be a bit of a stretch for most companies, particularly those businesses not directly impacted by the matters.

“What’s interesting about Ben & Jerry’s is that they’ve gone beyond being an ice cream brand to being a hippie brand,” Kleinberg says. “Their whole brand is emotionally about taking a stand on things. Not everyone is going to love them, but those who do love them a lot. That’s super important. We live in a day and age where this notion of corporate responsibility is greater than it’s ever been.”

This history of activism seems to give the company an edge, whereas other brands that try to jump on hot topics fall short and come off as inauthentic. The company likes to think of its involvement in different issues like its flavors: There’s something for everyone.

“There will always be people who feel an ice cream company should stick to ice cream,” Horowitz says. “But if you know Ben & Jerry’s, you know they’ve never been just an ice cream company. That’s why it comes off as authentic when they wade into these controversial issues.”

Stever has been with the company since 1988 and has witnessed firsthand how ingrained values are in the brand and how the mission has translated from a tie-dyed, dog-friendly Vermont headquarters to the far reaches of the globe.

“With all the phone calls I get at night and in the morning, it feels like a global company,” Stever laughs. “But the beauty of it is it still feels like a small company. A big part of that is that we’re all together over shared values and making sure that we basically continue to produce the best possible ice cream in the nicest possible way. We’re trying to create change in the world while having fun, and we believe in the greater good as much as we believe in the best ice cream.”

Sarah Steimer is a writer, editor, podcast producer, and yoga teacher living in Chicago. She has written for Marketing News, Chicago magazine, Culture magazine, the Pittsburgh Post- Gazette, and other outlets.