Ben & Jerry’s is a company I love and worked with. They have done great at giving and gaining the support they need. Right from the start they positioned themselves as “the people’s ice cream”, cultivating a strong philosophy of direct to the customer relationship. They built trust by letting people feel that they were “one of them”, and in this case “one of them” meant representing people with strong liberal progressive values who care about bettering their world. Like no other, Ben & Jerry’s did extremely well by making it fun to be a responsible and progressive citizen. And like their support groups in general, they were ready to use business as a force for good. Ben actually scared people when he said that businesses are the most powerful institutions in the world, and they could become the world’s most powerful forces for social change. This is something that many people with liberate progressives’ views like to buy into. Some people would even go so far as calling this a radical vision of business, while others would call it just as a good way to portray a bad thing anyway: a profit seeking business.
The “together in this” idea that did the most to help transform their business to pursue social and environmental justice, was the concept of “linked prosperity”.
It stated that as the Ben & Jerry’s company prospers, all of the employees, suppliers, customers, and other living things that had contributed to its success should prosper as well. Jostein Solhein, the CEO of Ben & Jerry’s after Unilever bought the company, even goes so far as saying that “we see ourselves as a partner to communities. Linking the company’s prosperity to employees means not just paying a livable wages but guaranteeing a dignified life. Linking it to farmers, processors, and suppliers means eliminating poverty from our supply chain. And linking prosperity to customers means measuring the social mission and making sure it grows faster than sales.” He goes on: “we need to keep optimizing for linked prosperity, which is not easy.”
A three part ‘Together in this’ mission
Ben & Jerry’s did not, however, start out this way. They started out with throwing parties in their early days and by giving away huge amounts of inventory. Ben and Jerry are rare generous spirits who build a great business but never wanted to be businessmen. If they could afford it, they would make every day a free cone day. This certainly made them a nicer company, but in the beginning they just wanted to make enough money to live on while they enjoyed themselves.
As their business got bigger, they started getting more serious about using fun and ice cream for good, and they started to imagine what the world could look like if business got serious about pursuing social and environmental justice. They also realized they needed to put the company’s beliefs in writing. They needed a mission statement.
This led to three-part company mission that were equal and interrelated.
The product mission is to make, distribute, and sell the finest quality all-natural ice-cream and related products in a wide variety of innovative flavors made from Vermont dairy products. In short: They wanted to make products that were good for the belly and soul.
The social mission is to operate the company in a way that actively recognizes the central role that business plays in the structure of society by initiating innovative ways to improve the quality of life of a broad community: local, national, and international.In short: They believed and advocated that business can be cattle-ist for social justice.
The economic mission is to operate the company on a sound financial basis of profitable growth, increasing value for our shareholders and creating career opportunities and financial rewards for our employees.
Ben & Jerry’s needed to apply a lot of ‘together in this’ strategies to make this work in ways that more people could take ownership of this three part mission beyond the circle of the board, beyond the leadership, beyond a department and beyond the structures of its own organization.
Raising capital with a ‘Together in this’ twist
Brad Edmondson writes that Ben & Jerry’s started to get more serious about their social mission and linked prosperity vision on April 26, 1984, the day the company made its first stock offering. On that day the Ben & Jerry’s company started sharing the company’s wealth with the communities that were closest to it.
The company needed to raise $750,000 in equity to finance a $3.25 million ice cream plant in Waterbury. Business was booming, and the prospects for expansion were bright. However, the banks thought differently about this. The company leadership tried to get a loan and they applied to dozens of banks before they found one that would even consider lending money to anyone who looked and acted like they did. Naturally the bank officer added that he needed to see some equity first. To address this Ben came up with the idea to restrict the stock offer to people who live in Vermont, with a minimum purchase of twelve shares at $10,50 apiece. At that time, crowdfunding platforms did not exist yet. Nearly everyone who heard about the idea said that it was naïve and impractical. They told Ben that the stock offer could not reach its goal under those restrictions. Clearly these advisors did not understand the power of affinity yet.
Ben’s idea succeeded brilliantly. They sealed the deal by handing out free samples of ice cream and they easily raised the money, and that was just the beginning. The offer also generated a tremendous amount of publicity and goodwill. By the time it was done, nearly 1 percent of the households in the state owned shares of Ben & Jerry’s.
Restricting the offer also made it unnecessary to register it with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which reduced the banking costs. And more importantly the sale built a support system which was priceless. It aligned thousands of patriotic Vermonters who would hassle the corner grocers if ever they ran out of Health Bar Crunch.
‘Together in this’ we fight strong-armed competitors. This support system was especially handy when the company faced strong arm tactics from Pillsbury, its chief competitor in the premium ice cream business. Pillsbury, which spends millions on ads featuring a character called the Doughboy, owned Haagen-Daz, the first super premium ice cream in the United States. When Ben & Jerry’s started selling in Boston, Pillsbury told its distributors there that they wouldn’t get any Haagen-Dazs unless they agreed not to deliver Ben & Jerry’s. It was a blatantly illegal move, and the company did not have enough time and money to rely on the courts.
Ben & Jerry’s did explore a legal route to address this, but their non-legal strategy worked better. They put notices on their packaging, using their pints as an engagement tool, inviting their support base to join them in a campaign called ”What’s the Doughboy Afraid of?”. They mailed out packets with bumper stickers and form letters to customers and support groups to send to Pillsbury’s CEO. Many of their co-investors jump into the action because they were not only in this with a financial standpoint, but also shared a common purpose. As a group with social progressive liberal values they thought it was socially unfair when big business, like big government, was applying bullying tactics to people and smaller players in the market, something social justice activists could not agree with.
The Doughboy campaign generated an avalanche of positive publicity for Ben & Jerry’s, and it put so much pressure on Pillsbury and its CEO, that the big company was forced to back off. It set a pattern the company would use, with specular results, for decades. They turned marketing into a social justice activity using their product and pint as activist tools to enable social change. They would market to taste buds through sampling, and also to an ordinary person’s sense of fairness and justice by taking on social issue with serious fun. It was also the first time the company realized it could use its voice in a different way, a voice serving people and communities on things that mattered to them rather than mattered to the category or the organization.
‘Together in this’ strategies across departments.
When Liz Bankowski was appointed as the first woman on the board of Ben & Jerry’s it was a great deal because the company prides itself on its progressive values. But her value to the company went far beyond symbolism. She was a political professional who knew how to generate support for social initiatives. The three part mission gave her the opportunity to unlock more meaningful growth. What also helped her was the fact that the founders saw their company as a laboratory for innovation and progressive business and they got a buzz in doing things differently.
So when Liz, after a few hit and miss social initiatives, told her fellow board members that it seemed funny that they all agreed that social mission part of their company was important and was a point of distinction in the marketplace for them, but no one on the staff was devoted to the social mission part. The board agreed and they appointed her to be staff. She accepted and set some goals. The first was to spread acceptance of the social mission throughout the company so it could move beyond scattershot ideas of Ben and others.
With a ‘together in this’ mindset she focused on getting ownership of the social mission across departments. She understood that power works by division, but influence works by multiplication.
Liz encouraged people to speak their minds, even if they did not agree with the initiatives. She invited Ben & Jerry’s to take on a longer term view of projects with a social purpose. Ben & Jerry’s was always open to use its sourcing and supply chain partnerships to support whoever advanced certain social missions and supported people who were at a disadvantage in communities. She suggested better screening their supplier and partnership on the feasibility of the idea, the availability of a good intermediary to make it happen, the resources available, the likelihood of the project becoming a success, and the commitment the company wished to make to it. Liz was stating the obvious. The trick was to find a way to honor the culture of Ben & Jerry’s, with all of its compassion, spontaneity, and fun, while also finding a way to express these qualities in numbers. This is a culture where interpersonal trust is valued more than the institutional trust, hence numbers needed to matter more. And they needed to count across departments. Ben especially wanted to see how all the tools of business could be used to contribute to its social mission. It meant that each department had to provide progress reports of social performances.
The report discussed success and failure for a long list of activities in six categories:
Products and marketing
Internal policies and operations
Relationships with suppliers and franchisees
Taking a standThese were clearly measures that invited more people across departments to take action and ownership of the social mission.
Meaningful growth is never created alone
Ben & Jerry’s is a great example for anyone who wants to succeed in the marketplace by creating value with, and around, people and communities they serve. This is easier when you already believe that we need an economy that should serve many and not just the few, as is the case for Ben & Jerry’s. However, I believe that most organizations do not know how to apply ‘together in this’ strategies because they lack the tools and habits to apply them. For us, meaningful growth is never created alone. A ‘together in this’ mindset, culture and set of practices are required. And here Ben & Jerry’s can serve as an inspiration to us all.
Read Ice Cream Social, by Brad Edmondson, to learn more about the struggle for the soul of Ben & Jerry’s
By: Christophe Fauconnier, Business Humanizer & CEO