Ben & Jerry’s is well-known for attacking social problems most companies avoid, such as their recent announcement of campaigns for voter rights and racial equality. They know that taking forthright positions on political issues will alienate a lot of people who like ice cream. Are they courageous? Yes. Are they crazy? Like a fox.
Ben & Jerry’s is an “affordable luxury” product that costs more than other brands of ice cream. The company’s regular customers live in large urban areas, have higher-than-average incomes, and are either raising children or in childless married couples, according to ongoing research. These are also the groups that tend to support progressive political issues like the fight to overturn Citizen’s United and Black Lives Matter. So when the company steps out on a controversial topic, their devoted customers love them more. The people who get angry are much less likely to buy their product anyway.
Ben & Jerry’s has been speaking out for 35 years, and their politics are a core element of their beloved brand. “The more people get pissed off at us, the more ice cream we sell,” said CEO Jostein Solheim, speaking at the 2013 annual meeting of franchisees (and recounted in my book, Ice Cream Social). “This is counterintuitive, and it is hard for a big corporation to understand. But it is true beyond a doubt.”
Here’s an example. In 2013, Unilever introduced Ben & Jerry’s to Australia. The launch happened just as Australians were dealing with a proposal to dredge a channel through the Great Barrier Reef, so that coal barges would have an easier time getting to power plants. Lots of people thought that the dredging would be a colossal mistake, and they started to make noise. Ben & Jerry’s joined the protest by dressing two employees up in cow costumes and sending them down to picket on the reef itself (see photo above). They also joined the World Wildlife Fund to tour the country, hand out free samples, and spread the message, “Don’t Scoop The Reef.”
When Queensland’s Minister of the Environment, Andrew Powell, heard about what Ben & Jerry’s was doing, he called for a national boycott of Ben & Jerry’s — and ice cream sales in Australia shot way, way up. Eighteen months later, the campaign to save the reef is going strong, the dredging proposal is stalled, and the launch in Australia was a big success. Go figure.