It’s no surprise that activists love Ben & Jerry’s for putting its social mission on an equal footing with making a profit. And it was not a surprise when Unilever short-changed the social mission of Ben & Jerry’s after it bought the company in 2000.
The surprising thing, and the reason Ice Cream Social was written, is that the world’s second-largest food company started taking Ben & Jerry’s seriously. In 2014, the multinational giant is making a sincere effort to add a social mission component to all of its global brands. Why it’s doing that is an even bigger surprise.
Running a mission-driven business is, plainly speaking, a pain in the ass. For eight years after it bought Ben & Jerry’s, Unilever executives disregarded the Vermont company’s policies — such as paying employees a living wage, paying a premium for “values-led” ingredients, and conducting a detailed annual “social audit” — because these policies cut into short-term profits. The Unilever execs thought their job was to simplify tasks and maximize financial return. They were being penny-wise and pound-foolish.
Ben & Jerry’s is expensive, and it is also one of Unilever’s most profitable brands. This is because its customers, employees, and suppliers are insanely loyal. Consumers eagerly pay extra for this brand, in part, because it reflects their beliefs. Employees and suppliers should be paid fairly. Companies should spend extra to reduce environmental harm. Haagen-Dazs and other super-premium ice creams might taste just as good as Ben & Jerry’s does, but they don’t make consumers feel like they’re doing the right thing when they make choices in the supermarket.
Paul Polman signed on to this marketing strategy when he became CEO of Unilever in 2009 and started talking about reducing the company’s carbon footprint. But Polman soon learned how difficult and complicated it is to run a mission-driven business. Ragu spaghetti sauce, one of the company’s biggest brands, started selling an organic version in 2005, but it didn’t work. Overall sales of pasta sauce have been declining, and consumers didn’t see Ragu as different enough to choose it over cheaper store brands. Now Unilever has put Ragu up for sale, along with Wishbone, Skippy, and other brands that aren’t meeting their profit targets.
It seems that as long as Polman is CEO, Unilever will be committed to the “sustainable living plan” it launched in 2010. But changing Unilever, which operates in 190 countries and employs 173,000 people, is like changing a country. And changing consumers’ opinions about brands is just as complicated.
Unilever recently announced new packaging that will cut its use of plastic by at least 15 percent, along with an improved nutritional profile for spreads like I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! Unilever has also cut the carbon emissions of its manufacturing plants by 32 percent since 2008. And in April, Polman announced that the company’s Sustainable Living goals would expand to include fairness in the workplace, gender equality, and a more “inclusive business.”
What Unilever is not doing, so far, is pushing its social goals hard enough to make people angry, as Ben & Jerry’s is doing in Australia. Last Friday, Australian government officials called for Ben & Jerry’s to be punished for its vocal support of the campaign to stop dredging the Great Barrier Reef. But a poll indicates that most Australian consumers support the Vermonters.
Consumers love Ben & Jerry’s because it is edgy, irreverent, and willing to speak truth to power. Unilever is letting Ben & Jerry’s get away with it because they want to teach other brands the trick Ben & Jerry’s does so well. The big company desperately needs loyal customers who won’t abandon their brands for cheaper alternatives.
You probably don’t think that buying soap, shampoo, and spaghetti sauce is a political act. Unilever is working to change your mind. The problem is that big corporations are also under enormous pressure to avoid risk and maintain the status quo. As a result, most “corporate social responsibility” is really just marketing, and consumers know it. The real lesson Unilever is learning from Ben & Jerry’s is that the brand has to walk the talk.