Ben and Jerry’s brand of activism survives its Unilever takeover

May 24, 2012

The folksy Ben & Jerry ice cream outfit seemed an unlikely fit for the global Unilever Corporation. But their activism and social values of the smaller business seem to have survived the takeover

When a global Corporation acquire a smaller brand, there is likely to be a clash of cultures. Recently, Coke’s acquisition of Innocent, the pioneering manufacturer of healthy Smoothies drinks comes to mind. Another instance is that of Sony acquiring the tiny Hawkeye operation ahead of its own interests in Hawkeye’s technology being developed in sports such as tennis and cricket (with the greater market for football looming).

The Anglo Dutch giant Unilever likes to acquire brands with enough global potency to retain identity within the Unilever family. One BBC article recently asked whether its brand and corporate actions were becoming more like that of Ben & Gerry’s.

When Unilever bought Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in 2000, there was talk of Unilever becoming more like Ben & Jerry’s and not the other way round. The quirky American ice-cream maker certainly does not appear to have abandoned the principles of its founders.

Ben & Jerry’s publicly supported the Occupy Wall Street movement and, according to co-founder Jerry Greenfield, nobody got fired.
“I am pleased that Ben & Jerry’s is able to continue its innovative mission,” he says. “We get a lot of support – sometimes I’m a little surprised at how supportive Unilever is.”

“I think Ben & Jerry’s was a tipping point for Unilever – they learned a lot from the culture and learned that it made business sense,” says Paula Widdowson, former head of social responsibility at Northern Foods who is now a consultant on the subject.

The Corporate plan

When Unilever unveiled its plans for putting sustainability at the heart of its global operations [in 2010], CEO Paul Polman publically committed to to reducing the environmental impact of its products by 50% while doubling sales, in the coming decade to 2020. He noted that the new model was “the only way to do business long term”.

The Ben & Jerry website

The Ben & Jerry website retains a powerful sense of the historic quirkiness of the company. Its activism and commitment to social values shines through. [I was reminded a little of the core identity of Mattel, when I looked at the site: Ed].

Ben & Jerry’s is founded on and dedicated to a sustainable corporate concept of linked prosperity. Our mission consists of 3 interrelated parts [social, product and economic].

Underlying the mission is a determination to seek new and creative ways of addressing all three parts, while holding a deep respect for individuals inside and outside the company and for the communities of which they are a part.

At the time of the takover the news was described in these terms

Unilever is to buy Ben & Jerry’s ice cream company in a deal worth £203m ($326m).

Started in an old petrol station in Vermont in 1978, the [Ben & Jerry] company grew into a quirky business with a strong social dimension.
But lately differences have arisen between Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield about the direction the company should take, although the old schoolfriends deny they have fallen out.

“While we and others certainly would have pursued our mission as an independent enterprise, we hope that, as part of Unilever, Ben & Jerry’s will continue to expand its role in society,” they said in a statement.

Leadership lessons

Ben & Gerry cases have become a favoured topic for business school study. A range of case studies can be found (together with a range of not-always-model analyses).

This post has been written to introduce the potential dilemmas facing the Tom & Gerry brand within its wider responsibilities as part of a global operation.


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