Ben & Jerry’s Marketing Campaign: A Better World With Brand Activism

22 November, 2017
  • 15 min read
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An increasing number of people now want to work for a company with a higher purpose than simply making money. Ben & Jerry’s is one of those organisations. The company has grown into an activist brand. So what exactly does this mean and how is the well-known American ice cream brand trying to use brand activism to make the world somewhat of a better place?

Many companies hope to achieve a better balance between economic and social values. For example, as a company you try to be as sustainable as possible and sponsor one or several charities. Ben & Jerry’s makes optimal use of its own resources for social purposes. The company may not be solving any world problems with its ice cream, but the use of its name and reputation and accessible products is demanding attention for social issues. Ben & Jerry’s has now developed into an activist brand.

What is an activist brand?

Wikipedia defines this form of activism as ‘the efforts to promote, influence or manage social, political, economic and/or ecological reforms, with the aim of realising social impact’.

Marketing guru Philip Kotler distinguishes between regressive (declining) and progressive (pioneering) brand activism. One good example of regressive activism is the ‘Big Tobacco’ – the tobacco companies which have spent years denying their products are harmful, even when an internal investigation proved the opposite. They even advertised their harmful products. Companies which participate with political lobbying for regressive measures are brand activists.

More and more companies are involved with progressive activism, which want to create an impact where major social problems are concerned. These companies have a higher purpose than simply making profit and are increasingly being seen as an example within their industry.

It’s certainly no coincidence that the top 3 most inspiring companies in The Netherlands consist of social enterprises Tony’s Chocolonely, Tesla and Dopper. The most inspiring companies of 2017 were announced on 23 November 2017. This year, there is a new dimension which makes organisations inspiring: smart creativity. Smart creativity allows companies to turn their why, vision or purpose into impact. Organisations can thrive most effectively with a continuous beta status, whereby technology always plays an important role.

Sex no longer sells, but activism certainly does

How long has brand activism been on the map for?

Kotler indicates that brand activism is a natural evolution of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and the ecological, social and political programmes which are transforming companies worldwide. Previous efforts were focussed on marketing and corporate driven initiatives.

Brand activism is created when companies put the future of humanity and the health of the planet at the very top of their agenda. The underlying force is a sense of justice and honesty for everyone.

“Sex no longer sells, but activism certainly does”, according to Blanca Juti, Chief of Corporate Relations at Heineken, during the NRC Impact Day. Heineken produced a television commercial for the American market, whereby strangers with opposing points of view would enter into discussions together. Whilst enjoying a beer together, they realise they have a great deal more in common that they initially thought. Pepsi recently launched a (heavily criticised) commercial, which saw Kendall Jenner joining in with a protest march. When the protesting crowd reaches the row with police officers, Jenner walks over to one of the officers and offers him a can of Pepsi.

The 6 P’s of Ben & Jerry’s activist marketing

Jay Curley, Ben & Jerry’s Senior Global Marketing Manager, talked about how the company is interpreting activist marketing during OnBrand17. Curley linked his story to a new marketing framework: the 6 P’s of activist marketing. The aim of this framework is for marketers to change the way they look at the tools they have at their disposal. This framework will provide you with the opportunity to create a campaign with the power of a social movement. The 6 P’s can help companies to change the world:

1. Purpose

2. Policy

3. People

4. Power

5. Publishing

6. Pop culture

You will have a problem if you don’t have a purpose - Jay Curley

1. Purpose

A purpose is something you believe in. Why does your company exist? What is the higher purpose? Childhood friends Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield launched an ice cream parlour in Burlington, Vermont (US) back in 1978. They initially considered selling bagels, but the investment for the materials proved to be too high. It eventually became Ben & Jerry’s homemade ice cream. The company soon started to grow and the two men realised they were more involved with the management side of things than actually making the ice cream. Becoming managers was truly the last thing they wanted. What they wanted was to have fun, earn a living and make the world a better place. They came up with their three part mission ten years after the launch of the ice cream parlour in Burlington: make the most delicious ice cream, realise financial growth and improve the world.

Ben & Jerry’s mission:

1. Our product mission drives us to make the most delicious and fair ice cream!

2. Our economic mission obliges us to lead our company towards sustainable financial growth.

3. Our social mission obliges us to use our company innovatively, in order to make the world a better place.

Ben & Jerry’s social objective is social justice. Social justice is broadly defined by the company, from climate to human rights. They had already started implementing this objective before they officially shared it with others:

•1985: the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation was founded in order to support local projects. They wanted to use the foundation to thank the local community for all their help with the setting up of their company.

•1990: Ben & Jerry’s included Support Farm Aid on all of its packaging. Farm Aid is an organisation which stands up for farmers’ rights.

•1992: the start of a collaboration with the Children’s Defence Fund. The aim of this campaign was to demand more political attention for all children’s basic needs.

•2000: Ben & Jerry’s was taken over by Unilever. However, the company’s mission remained unchanged. This included the company’s collaboration with Greenpeace in a campaign about climate change.

2. Policy

A Policy is the actual change you want to bring about. This isn’t something marketers should be thinking up by themselves behind their desks, but in consultation with those involved with it on a daily basis. Ask these people what they need, want they specifically want to work on during the forthcoming period and how your company can assist with this. Ben & Jerry’s is completely focussed on existing social movements where the interpretation of its social objective is concerned. Curley: ”We ask all these movements what they need from us. How can we support your movement? What do you need in order to realise growth? That’s how we create change.”

One of their specific focus points is refugee work. Ben & Jerry’s, together with national and international organisations such as the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and VluchtelingenWerk Nederland (RefugeeWork Netherlands), is committed to helping refugees who still aren’t safe after fleeing their homeland. A bill will be discussed in Brussels over the forthcoming months, which is all about the future of this group of refugees, which includes many children and single women. Ben & Jerry’s is conducting a campaign and is calling for everyone to sign the VluchtelingenWerk Nederland petition. They are using this campaign to attempt to influence the outcome of the bill.

3. People

People is the team, the people who work in the company. Curley is very clear about the fact this work can’t be outsourced. “People are the company’s driving force. Their personal objectives must be linked to the organisation’s goal. This way of working means you don’t need to employ activists, but you do need people with experience. That’s Ben & Jerry’s approach. Marketers must be given the time to learn this new way of working. They will delve into all matters which are of importance to the company. They need to know everything there is to know about the product, like the exact amount of milk fat. This is the only way to be 1. authentic and 2. passionate about what you’re selling. Teams must be given time to grow. People must be given the opportunity to learn and be actively involved with the subjects which truly matter to us. In addition to the product knowledge needed to be able to make the most delicious ice cream, this is also Ben & Jerry’s interpretation of the social mission.”

Climate change and human rights are two of the most urgent problems in our society. And an important reason why many people are still working for Ben & Jerry’s. – Jay Curley

4. Power

Power is how you can make your company’s entire operation, as well as all your marketing touch points, contribute to your social mission. You have so many resources at your disposal. From product to packaging to channels. Use these to share an extra message”, according to Curley. Ben & Jerry’s doesn’t just make delicious ice cream, but also boasts a fantastic reputation, a large group of customers and loyal fans. The launch of a new Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavour will always attract a great press presence. The introduction of the “Empower Mint” flavour in North Carolina last year at the same as the launch of the “Democracy is in your hands” campaign was not a complete coincidence.

This campaign, which was launched to support the American civil rights movement NACCP, was focussed on the oppression of voters and demanded attention for the influence of (anonymous) money lenders during the election campaigns.

Founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield both attended the launch of the new ice cream flavour and had specifically chosen North Carolina, as this state is the epicentre for the fight for voting rights in the United States.

People are obviously more inclined to click on a picture of a new ice cream, rather than an image of refugees on a boat.

5. Publishing

Curley feels inviting fans is a powerful means of building up a social movement and can actually result in a huge impact if done at the right time. Ben & Jerry’s helps social movements with the production of content and shares this with its followers. Last year the company wrote an impressive 90 blogs about climate change, varying from extensive research projects to tips and short videos. A video was released before the Paris agreement, which explained the consequences for climate change using melting ice.

Even though Ben & Jerry’s devotes a great deal of time and energy to fulfilling its social mission, half of all Americans don’t realise the company does a great deal more than selling ice cream. They also want to include these people in the social movement. However, this does require a different approach. The same subject is propagated, although via different channels and with a different message.

Curley: “We are a fun ice cream company and want to contribute to the solution for important world problems. We effectively bring together these two extremes. We use our fun and inviting brand as a way to open doors to social movements. After all, people are more inclined to click on a picture of a new ice cream than an image of refugees on a boat.”

6. Pop culture

Pop culture is all about relevance. How can you stay relevant and how can you use the means you, as a company, have at your disposal for sharing relevant messages with customers and fans?

Ben & Jerry’s strength is mainly in the naming of ice cream flavours, creative content creation and the sharing of this content (publishing).

• When gay marriages were first introduced in the American Vermont, Ben & Jerry’s changed the name of its chubby hubby ice cream to hubby hubby.

• The ‘Yes Pecan’ ice cream flavour was introduced in 2009, in honour of Barack Obama’s inauguration as American President. Obama is the only president in history with his own Ben & Jerry’s flavour.

• The American guitarist Jerry Garcia really had the scoop. Following a tip off from a fan, Ben & Jerry’s introduced the now very popular Cherry Garcia to the market in 1987.

Dear Ben & Jerry’s,

We’re great fans of the Grateful Dead and we’re great fans of your ice cream. Why don’t you make a cherry flavour and call it Cherry Garcia? You know it will sell, because Dead paraphernalia always sells. We are talking good business sense here, plus it will be a real hoot for the fans.

How can you make optimal use of your own resources for a social objective?

Ben & Jerry’s uses its fun brand to involve people with relevant subjects. Of course not every company is of the same size, or in a position to realise the same impact as the well-known ice cream brand, but every organisation should consider how they can be more relevant. Ben & Jerry’s helps social movements to realise their objectives, rather than coming up with new things for making the world a better place.

They make optimal use of their marketing mix, in order to demand extra attention for social justice. From blogging about social subjects to naming new ice cream flavours to current events. They make use of their fun brand, their extensive network of customers, fans and media and all the resources they have at their disposal which can be important to the social movements they are supporting.


This article was originally published in Dutch in the Frankwachting.

About the author

Marjan de Jong

Strategic and hands-on Marketing Consultant and Lecturer at Hotelschool The Hague.

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