‘It's not a marketing exercise’: Ben & Jerry’s on dismantling white supremacy

Ben & Jerry's CEO Matthew McCarthy called on its customers to support efforts to defund the police last week

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death and the subsequent global protests about systemic racism and police brutality against black people, Ben & Jerry’s global head of activism explains how the brand is making a meaningful contribution to dismantling white supremacy and why it doesn’t rely on agency partners to power its brand purpose.

“There are moments in the course of history when it’s important to stand up and be counted,” says Ben & Jerry’s global head of activism Christopher Miller, who believes that statement to be true of individuals and brands alike.

The self-described “rabble-rouser” has been managing Ben & Jerry’s activism efforts since 2012. He started his career working for Bernie Sanders in the US House of Representatives and has also worked as a climate campaigner for Greenpeace.

Now he works to translate the values of an outspoken ice-cream maker into successfully activist campaigns that demonstrate Ben & Jerry’s commitment to social good and its progressive political agenda.

Last month, Miller was faced with one of these history-altering moments when America was confronted with the death of yet another unarmed black citizen at the hands of the police.

The murder of Minneapolis resident George Floyd, whose neck was pinned to the ground under the knee of a policeman for nine minutes until his heart gave up, has provoked a series of outraged protests in the US and beyond about the systemic racism and inequality faced by black people.

Ben & Jerry’s has been working on issues related to race since before Miller arrived. It was 2016, in the aftermath of the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott by a Charlotte police officer, when it first aligned itself with the Black Lives Matter movement and encouraged customers to educate themselves or be complicit. More recently, it used its 420 campaign (which marks the 20 April celebration of cannabis culture) to highlight the racial injustices tied up in the cannabis industry.

“In the wake of the killings of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin [also], we felt it was important to stand up and put our company on record in support of Black Lives Matter,” Miller tells The Drum.

“The events of the last few weeks felt like it was another one of these moments. What we saw in Minneapolis and Georgia required us to not only align ourselves with the movement for black lives, but to also call this for what it was – what we saw was the result of a culture of white supremacy.”

Where other brands posted a black square on their Instagram grid or faced a backlash from consumers over “tone deaf” watered down declarations that seemed incongruous to their past behavior, Ben & Jerry’s did not come to play. As protests entered their eighth day on 5 June, the Unilever-owned brand set the bar with a powerful statement calling on Americans to “dismantle white supremacy” and “grapple with the sins of our past”.

“The murder of George Floyd was the result of inhumane police brutality that is perpetuated by a culture of white supremacy,” continued the advertiser.

“What happened to George Floyd was not the result of a bad apple; it was the predictable consequence of a racist and prejudiced system and culture that has treated Black bodies as the enemy from the beginning.”

The brand didn’t stop at the stark statement. It also issued a series of four “concrete steps” to dismantle white supremacy, including calling on President Trump to commit the US to a formal process of healing and reconciliation, asking Congress to create a commission to study the effects of slavery and discrimination from 1619 to the present and supporting the Floyd family’s call to create a national task force that would draft bipartisan legislation aimed at ending racial violence and increasing police accountability.

‘This is not a marketing exercise’

The George Floyd demonstrations are stirring long-overdue change. In the US and UK, statues and monuments of people with links to slavery are being toppled by demonstrators; the police officer responsible has been charged with murder and manslaughter; a national conversation is forcing white people to confront their role in a system built for them; and in perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing signal of change, a street within walking distance of Donald Trump in the White House has been renamed ‘Black Lives Matter Plaza’. It’s clear that as well as selling 150 million units of ice cream a year, Ben & Jerry’s wants to come along on this journey and be on the right side of history too. Over the weekend, its chief executive Matthew McCarthy called on its customers to support efforts to defund the police – his message coming on Juneteeth, the day that commemorates the emancipation of enslaved people in the US.

In a world where many marketers will be all too familiar with red tape and prolonged sign-offs, the brand is in unique position. Yes, it’s a wholly-owned subsidiary of Unilever but its board of directors remains independent. That means that the statement it issued last month was written by Miller on the Friday and published on the Tuesday after the activism boss and his small CSR team sat down with the marketing team for a 90-minute meeting.

“This isn’t a four-point plan that was dreamed up by agency partners or our marketing team,” Miller asserts.

"This framing around the statement and the solutions we’re proposing are rooted in our work with partners”. These partners include organizations like Color of Change and the North Carolina NAACP, which seeks to ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate race-based discrimination.

Where many brands charge their ad shops with communicating their purpose and social good initiatives, Miller is frank that this isn’t the case at Ben & Jerry’s.

“We do not work with agency partners on this sort of work. This is not a marketing exercise. What makes this work at Ben & Jerry’s is that we marry someone that has my experience and background – I’ve worked in civil society policy and advocacy, I don’t have an MBA and I’ve never been a brand manager – with our unique approach to campaigning.”

He argues Ben & Jerry’s has carved out a place in standing up for societal change, not only because it’s coming from a place of authenticity but also because it takes the tools it has as a for-profit ice-cream maker that “knows how to market stuff” and applies that to activism.

“We’ll work with agencies to design images or create the look and feel of the work. But not on strategy.”

Does every brand need a rabble-rouser?

Ben & Jerry’s corporate structure and roots in 'hippy' Vermont ensure it’s well placed to speak to customers from a place of honestly and in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s just trying to sell a tub of Cookies n’ Cream or Phish Food.

In recent weeks, many brands have shown solidarity with Black Lives Matter, among them Nike, Adidas and L’Oreal. The latter fell foul of online critics who pointed out that its statement of support did not square with previous treatment of black transgender model Munroe Bergdorf, who was swiftly dropped by the cosmetics giant when she spoke out against racism in 2017. The French company has since apologised and reached out to Berfdorf to come back on board as an ambassador.

In a landscape where consumers are more conscious than ever about their choices, and watching brands closely to see if they talk the talk on issues they proclaim to be active about, Miller recognizes that there’s a tightrope to walk but argues that businesses have a responsibility to take a stand.

“Yes there has been a critique around virtue signalling that the idea that some brands are co-opting a movement to advance their marketing strategy.

“But, if you step back for a moment and look at how widely this is resonating around the world, it’s not just something that’s centered on a group of Black Lives Matter Activists in Milwaukee, it’s global, it’s multiracial, it’s multigenerational.

"Everybody, unless you’re living in a cave somewhere. been touched by this. I felt a desire inside my own company for us to have something to say about this, so I’m sure other companies have felt this. So largely, I see this as a positive development.”

He states that companies who haven’t spoken out before shouldn’t see that as a barrier to entering the “uncomfortable” discussion now. However, he also says it is those who have issued statements that fall somewhere into the “mushy middle” in the last few weeks are those who are ultimately facing criticism, including the NFL.

“It made a very broad statement acknowledging the grief that the Floyd family is feeling, but without using even the word racism and it got beat up pretty bad… it should have given players the opportunity to speak on its behalf and build some bridges, that was a missed opportunity and dangerous place to be.”

Other issues Miller is focused on include reforming the criminal justice system in the US and the immigration crisis in Europe.

Helping come up with solutions to solve the latter, he explains, is something that is rooted in his company's values. In other markets, it's looking at issues around climate change.

"The strongest bond you can create with your customers is a shared sense of value," says Miller, "but that's not why we do this."

"Our two co-founders were counterculture progressives that pioneered an approach to business that attempted to use it to drive impact and advance progressive social change.

"It's also true that for 42 years without fail we have grown the business year over year after it was started from a dilapidated gas station in Vermont.

"We're in 40 countries globally now and one of the most recognized ice cream brands on the planet, but I believe - and I think my colleagues do too - that part of that success has been our willingness as a company to do more than just selling ice cream."

"So should every brand have an activism manager, why not?"

Miller spoke with The Drum's trends editor Rebecca Stewart as part of The Drum's Can-Do Festival, an online event celebrating the positive energy, innovation and creative thinking that can make the marketing community such a powerful force for good. You can watch the interview in full here.

Sign up to watch forthcoming sessions and see the full Can-Do schedule here.

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