You can find Ben & Jerrys in the freezers of about 40 million US households. About ten million of these contain “fans” who connect with the company by liking it on Facebook or following it on Twitter, Snapchat, or some other social media platform. Keeping those fans engaged and encouraging them to carry on online conversations claims one-fifth of the company’s marketing budget. They sell a lot of ice cream through social media, but they do it in an unusual way.
Ben & Jerry’s uses social media to advocate for solutions to difficult issues like structural racism, climate change, and voter suppression. Their posts steer readers to activism resources in ways that are optimistic and funny without soft-pedaling the problem.
The company has put over 70 “values blog posts” up on its site so far this year, a 20 or 30 percent increase from 2015. “We’re a much more content-driven organization than we used to be,” says Jay Curley, senior global marketing manager. “Storytelling is an important way for us to inspire fans and build the capacity for social change.”
Taking forthright stands on social issues is “our voice as a business,” he says. “It’s a way for us to reach fans in a way other businesses can’t.”
Ben & Jerry’s did not do much advertising in its early years. Instead, it relied on direct sampling, media coverage, and word of mouth. Social media is an extension of this strategy.
“Direct relationships with fans and standing up for the values we believe in is how the brand was built,” says Curley. “When social media emerged, we were in a good position to take advantage.”
When you’re doing marketing that relies on storytelling about social justice and the environment, the result looks a lot like a newsroom. Curley and a team of writers and editors plan their coverage in weekly meetings supervised by the company’s director of social mission and activist board of directors. In April, Ben Cohen, Jerry Greenfield, board chair Jeff Furman, and other board members got arrested in a civil disobedience action at the US Capitol to protest voter suppression. “The media didn’t want to tell the story, so we told it ourselves,” says Curley.
The action generated 500 million impressions through sharing on social media, and it lead readers to other posts like a one minute video that explains voter suppression in a pantomime with ice cream and spoons (see above). “With Snapchat, we were able to make a narrative about what was happening in DC,” says Curley. “Twitter is for what’s happening now and what others are doing. We would share tweets from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and they would share ours. Then environmental organizations like Greenpeace USA and the Sierra Club picked it up. It happens organically.”
Jostein Solheim, CEO of Ben & Jerry’s, says that digital platforms “let us put all the relevant information into the consumer’s hand. It allows us to scale our social impact.”
The result is advocacy journalism that is also marketing. Recent Ben & Jerry’s posts have included a testimonial from NAACP President Cornell Brooks, “8 Weird Things You Didn’t Know Were Caused By Climate Change,” the next frontiers in the struggle for LGBTQ rights, and a somber report on the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef. A particularly tough post on systemic racism in June was re-posted and shared through July, says Curley. It was shared widely within the movement and also picked up by several journalists.
The posts barely mentioned ice cream. They didn’t have to.