Published on: August 24, 2022
Fast Company has a story about how, if "Ben & Jerry’s is the most high-profile and popular poster child for the phrase 'brand purpose'," this may be the time that the poster comes down.
"Ben & Jerry’s legacy and its ability to balance business and purpose has become as precarious as a bowl of Cherry Garcia left in the sun.
"In July, Ben & Jerry’s took the highly unusual and virtually unprecedented step of suing its parent company, Unilever, the $121 billion market cap global consumer packaged goods conglomerate. The case is over the parent company’s move to sell Ben & Jerry’s Israel business to a local licensee after Ben & Jerry’s itself announced in 2020 that, because of human rights concerns, it would not be selling its products in the West Bank.
"Ben & Jerry’s contends that handing over control of its brand to someone else in Israel would cause customer confusion around the values the brand has spent decades building and ultimately dilute and deteriorate its global reputation. Unilever, obviously, disagrees. This past week found the two companies in federal court arguing over whether Ben & Jerry’s merits a preliminary injunction to stop Unilever’s sale to the Israeli licensee."
The argument, Fast Company writes, is having an impact on Ben & jerry's culture: "There’s a sense internally of a lack of transparency and communication about what’s really going on. Meanwhile, in the past the brand felt relatively free to weigh in on any issue that they felt relevant to speak out on. Now, Unilever is requiring a more stringent chain of corporate approvals … this is starting to breed a culture of self-censorship, leading to Ben & Jerry’s perhaps being a bit less engaged on issues compared with the last several years. The company has strong views on the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the fight for reproductive health services, and trans rights, but given that things are harder internally, Ben & Jerry’s has been doing less in terms of adding its voice to these public debates."
The story suggests that the polarization in the Unilever-Ben & Jerry's relationship actually is a reflection of the broader polarization in the country; there was more tolerance back in 2000 when Unilever bought Ben & Jerry's and agreed to let the brand follow its own conscience in taking cultural and political positions.
Fast Company goes on:
"If this is indeed a referendum on the compatibility between truly purpose-led brands and public corporations, what’s the most likely outcome? Given the lack of conciliatory communication between Unilever and Ben & Jerry’s, with each side digging in on their respective positions, the most likely - and discouraging for anyone hoping a more conscious version of capitalism was possible - outcome is that Unilever uses its size, power, and influence to play CPG Palpatine and crush this ice-cream rebellion … Eventually, Ben & Jerry’s could become just another subsidiary that spews vaguely progressive, feel-good platitudes, and the closest thing to activism we see from it in the future is posting an image of a rainbow flag on Instagram every June.
"That outcome will bring all corporate-owned, purpose-led brands into question, with people knowing that there is a limit to just how much purpose a brand can have. It should also weigh heavy on the minds of any social-good entrepreneurs considering an acquisition offer."