Ben & Jerry’s Redux

Many who admired Ben & Jerry’s iconic status as a socially responsible company worried about the dilutive effect of Unilever’s acquisition of the ice cream maker in 2000. And not without reason. According to current CEO Walt Freese, the company under Unilever softened its commitment to continuing the efforts of its founders. There’s a lesson in this about corporate social responsibility (which we’ll return to below). But, in addition, there’s a profound lesson about brand.

If most people knew one thing about Ben & Jerry’s brand it was this: the mission and the company were not just about crazily named ice cream. The brand stood for both making good ice cream and taking action to improve the lives of people.

When Unilever went ‘soft’ on Ben & Jerry’s social mission, they also turned their backs on one of their own core competencies: branding. They jeopardized the soul of Ben & Jerry’s brand. So, CEO Freese’s decision to embark on a $5 million dollar campaign to save small family farms is both good corporate social policy and good corporate economic policy. It is Ben & Jerry’s redux — a return to what the company stands for.

From it’s beginning, Ben & Jerry’s brand — like it’s mission — stood for both the pursuit of value and the pursuit of values. The two were intertwined; each contributing to the success or failure of the other. Like many other businesses facing growth and competition, Ben & Jerry’s stumbled.  Eventually, the company reached a point of mediocrity — but it was mediocre performance with regard to both value and values. The failures on both fronts reinforced each other — just as the earlier successes had done. 

The orthodox business press (those who worship shareholder value as if it were an idol), jumped on the failure as evidence that Darwinian concern for profits is the one true path. Celebrations must have ensued when Unilever took over the troubled company.

Based on Freese’s announcements, these celebrations were premature. But, there’s yet another and deeper lesson in all this: It is a heck of a lot easier to reestablish a brand that stood for integrating value and values than to change ‘value-only’ brands into more sustainable promises and experiences.

Unilever has hundreds of brands for products it makes and distributes around the world. As our interconnected globe of markets, networks and organizations spirals into ever increasing complexity and messiness where social, environmental, political, technological, religious, medical, and legal challenges cannot be disentangled from economic ones, Unilever — like all enterprises — must find its way to an integrated concern for value and values.

This goes beyond the profoundly unethical so-called balanced scorecard — the wolf in sheep’s clothing that justifies concern for values only if it promotes shareholder value. Instead, drawing from the heritage of Eastern philosophy, we must learn to see and act on our legitimate concern for profits with our equally legitimate concern for all human values. Each — like the original vision of Ben & Jerry’s — must serve the other in reinforcing ways. This is not the one-way street of the balanced scorecard (concern for employees and customers okayed as long as shareholders benefit). The ethical scorecard demands that the pursuit of value serve the pursuit of values that serves the pursuit of value that serves the pursuit of values…. and on and on.

It’s extraordinarily difficult and complicated to turn a behemoth of Unilever’s size away from ‘profits and value only’ to a more sustainable approach. The sheer number of issues they are tackling is mind boggling. The challenge they’ve set to find some coherent and transparent way to set goals and evaluate progress is daunting. (And, as can been seen in their ‘five year record’, they have yet to wrap their minds around the true integration of the financial with the non-financial).

Still, kudos to the employees (including executives) of Unilever. They’ve given deep thought to the challenges ahead. They have publicly declared their intention and commitment. And, with enough focus on performance — real outcome-based goals that integrate concern for value with concern for values — they have a real chance to get where Ben & Jerry’s was at the beginning: a brand that stands for the fully human enterprise.

Posted by Doug Smith on October 23, 2005 01:28 PM | Permalink

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