Activism and ice cream: how Ben & Jerry’s balances social causes with humour

Ben & Jerry's launched its non-dairy range in Asia this year

The idea of doing good by the world, not just for profit or even for the customer, is mostly skin deep for many brands. Tactical sustainability projects prevail over long-term change and social campaigns and messages flood social media, while brands receive criticisms of ‘sprinkling’ diversity issues around.

Ben & Jerry’s, now owned by Unilever, has been able to retain its focus on issues even with a big public company behind it. Kalli Swaik, head of Asia and new markets at Ben & Jerry’s, tells The Drum that part of this is that it has been there from the start, but it is also because the brand’s personality is authentic.

“The way I see it there are two real things that have helped us here and that's personality but also authenticity. Ben & Jerry's has never been afraid to bring its whole self to anywhere we go,” she says, discussing the issue at Futr in Singapore last month.

“We have a strong point of view on pretty big issues. We also have really strong flavours. Quite polarising flavours, particularly here in Asia, we have a lot of comments on that. It is intrinsically who we are and we bring all of ourselves to wherever we are and we as employees are encouraged to bring our work ethics to a mark. I think that does show off and come through in what we do. You know we tackle local issues but we do it with a wink and a smile. That personality part is so important. You know we're quirky, we have a sense of humour, a sense of fun and an appreciation for pop culture and I think it really resonates with people,” she adds.

Ben & Jerry’s may have a strong history in this space, for example, it has famously campaigned for LGBT rights from the start and more recently protesting gay marriage by not allowing people to buy the same flavour twice, but Swaik says brands need to be political now more than ever.

“It has become more important than ever that we do it. Not only, because it's such a good thing to do but also because of the state of the world. When we look at the state of the world right now there is more need than ever for companies to be doing business in a different way, but also for businesses to be standing out and having a point of view,” she argues. “Ben & Jerry's speaks to more people in more languages, across more cultures in any one government or religion can. I think that's what's amazing as an opportunity but there is also a big responsibility and so with that, I am all for other brands stepping up and following me into this change and to using the power of their business for good.”

This call to arms comes with a warning as, much like wider industry critics have noted, some brands have seen this as an opportunity to exploit and have jumped on it as a bandwagon.

“What we are seeing is a lot of brands have jumped on the purpose trail or bandwagon, let's say, and they aren't necessarily doing it in the right way and consumers are seeing through that. When you look at research on Gen Z and the younger consumers coming through, they are the most cynical generation we've ever seen. But, if they think that it's right and if they see authenticity, they will get behind it. So, I think, yes absolutely more businesses need to lean in and they need to step up because it's the only way we will generate change but it does have to be done the right way.”

One way to show authenticity is to make changes to the entire value chain and to open up as a business and be transparent with customers about what you are doing to become more sustainable and fair. Swaik gives the example of the Ben & Jerry’s website, which has a section dedicated to explaining how it carries out its business throughout the entire value chain.

“Every single decision should be enacted by your values. If you say ‘this is what I believe in’ then you need to look at it in the decisions you make, from the countries you are launching in, to the ingredients you are buying, the manufacturing processes, the transportation, all through the line, as yourself, ‘am I making the best decision?’”

Where Swaik’s view may differ to some in the industry is around whether these decisions should also have business metrics in mind. Swaik believes that these decisions end up being more like CSR initiatives, rather than being brand activism. She recalls Nike’s huge social statement in supporting Colin Kaepernick, and says that while many in the industry were lauding the savvy sales generating side of the campaign, it should have been about the impact of the message on society.

“I know when we take on campaigns like that, that is not our objective. Sales are not our objective. When we do a social mission campaign or activism campaign, the impact is our objective. It's the only KPIs we have. We may see sales, and that's wonderful, but it's not why we do it. This is a slippery slope that we're going on unless we start coming at it with what we believe in and what impact do we want to see, then we're gonna keep blurring the lines between CSR and activism.”

It is not all easy for Ben & Jerry’s, when taking this personality and point of view into new markets. Swaik says the brand has to be wary when becoming a part of new communities because its American side is not always relatable.

“We have a lot of debate with ourselves when we are considering which markets to go into and there are some markets that maybe, on the face of it, don't align necessarily with our very Western Americanized brand. We are in American communities and that's fine but, what we've come to the point of realizing is unless we are there, we can't be part of the conversation and we can't create change. We have come to the understanding that we might not always be able to be very prominent on certain issues in some markets but we still believe there is impact we can have and we never hide who we are. We would never pretend we don't care about an issue or values, it is always there on our website, our website content does remain the same.

"It is about being smart. We don't want to get ourselves kicked out of the country, we believe in mobilising and using incredibly passionate young people who want to change the world, we need to take them on the journey with us. Activism is absolutely a journey everyone will go on their own activism journey. People want to change the world right now but are just not seeing the answers and the solutions aren't seeming retrievable,” she explains.

She adds that one way the brand stays relevant locally is that it uses its physical retail stores to be more customised to local tastes, as well as using that to feedback to the other products.

The company launched its non-dairy range in Asia for the first time this year, partly to allow vegans to enjoy the brand but also because many people in Asia are intolerant to dairy. Ultimately, she says it is about choice and creating lots of different ways for people to support the causes, and be more experimental with flavours.

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