Purpose At Work: How Ben & Jerry’s Combines Growth And Brand Activism

Today’s corporate leaders are doing more than building profits and market share. They are working to ignite social and environmental progress by leveraging their businesses’ as a force for good.

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Jay Curley, Global Head of Integrated Marketing at Ben & Jerry’s, recently wrote a must read article about how to achieve such impact goals by leveraging the 6P’s of Brand Activism. I had the opportunity to follow up with him about this ideology and the company’s insights into purposeful business. Here’s what we discussed:

Simon Mainwaring: Jay, can you give us a snapshot of the Ben & Jerry’s brand right now?

Jay Curley: In the last six years, our focus has been around activism. We’re doing that in the context of being a wholly owned subsidiary of Unilever. The actual governance agreement is that Unilever has operational control of our business. However, we have an independent board of directors that has legal oversight over our social mission and brand equity. When Paul Polman became CEO of Unilever, the company became more supportive of purpose-led businesses, and this continues with current CEO Alan Jope. They’re not wary of what we’re doing, but looking for us to lead. There’s a lot of great sharing in both directions.

SM: So, how do you marry the two cultures?

JC: I think Unilever sees us as a tip of the spear, as a speedboat innovating to advance activism and advocacy. The governance structure works as a backstop to ensure that the work we’re doing ladders up to our purpose and intentions.

SM: Enterprises waking up to the need to be purposeful. What does that dynamic between the enterprise and its brands look like at Unilever?

JC: It varies. A brand like Dove is going to be more connected to the Unilever Foundation because of their heritage and who they are. Where as we are more autonomous. This is an old example, but showing up at the COP in Paris, you had the Unilever CEO, the Ben & Jerry’s CEO, and the Seventh Generation CEO. Each acts independently, but as a team. Whereas, the Vice President of Dove may not be there.

SM: Do you see capital markets and enterprises shifting away from non-purposeful brands, as Paul Polman has suggested?

JC: For brands to have a real place in peoples’ lives it’s essential to be relevant. People need to know what a brand stands for. You can see what’s starting to happen with financial services as it relates to climate. Activists have shone the spotlight on brands like Bank of America and Chase. Americans are realizing that without their money, the fossil fuel industry can’t continue to expand. They’ve become a new target. When you say your operations have become carbon neutral, yet you’ve invested $750 billion into new fossil fuel expansion in the last five years, it doesn’t add up. Consumers aren’t letting that slide anymore.

SM: How are you working with other Unilever brands or companies that might otherwise be considered competition?

JC: At Ben & Jerry’s, we’ve done our best work by collaborating with other businesses around policy. It could be trying to get climate legislation passed or working to protect women’s health with the ACLU. Being able to show up with a host of other like-minded or, even better, not like-minded companies that aren’t the usual suspects. That’s how businesses can disrupt the narrative. It’s often through NGOs as conveners. We collaborate with them and different businesses to get things done.

SM: How do you address who gets the credit?

JC: My experience has been that groups aren’t just trying to show up for the credit. Don’t get me wrong, I think when companies do the right thing, they want people to know that. There’s nothing wrong with that.

For example, the youth climate strike in September was a very big global moment. The ask came to us through long standing partners like 350.org. They also went to other long-time partners, like Seventh Generation and Patagonia. We all stepped up to answer the call. The news stories read, ‘Patagonia is closing down. Ben & Jerry’s is closing down, Seventh Generation is donating their ad time.’ We ended up getting the credit equally because we’re the ones who’ve been working with 350 for the last five years. A lot of other businesses showed up too. But they weren’t the headline because they were new to it.

SM: Why is the distinction between a company defining its own movement or playing into an existing movement so important?

JC: When a company’s goal is to increase brand equity or affinity with a certain customer group, a good way to do that might be cause marketing. It’s a different approach to saying, ‘These are our values. This is the impact we want to see in the world. Who are the entities involved? Let’s go to them and ask them how we can help.’

We build campaigns around what they tell us they need. The output at the end may look very similar. But it’s a different approach to traditional cause marketing.

SM: Where do you see the most well-intended brands falling down?

JC: Two situations. First, is when companies make up campaigns or causes they think will be helpful but aren’t rooted in real people’s needs. The other is when brands try to pat themselves on the back, or in the worst cases, hijack social movements to sell stuff. Look at Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner spot. It’s obvious that there’s nothing there beyond trying to hijack a cultural moment.

SM: By supporting existing movements, is it possible to yield meaningful and measurable results?

JC: If you create a movement, then your marketing calendar runs out, it goes away. We’ve been guilty of that. We founded a nonprofit called Businesses for Democracy. We got a thousand other companies to sign on it. It was all about getting big corporate money out of U.S. elections. We did it for a year, then we were onto GMO labeling. We asked, ‘What do we do with this?.’ It was a good example of us learning that that was the wrong approach. We created something and ended up handing it off to American Sustainable Business Council. Had we done it with Public Citizen from the beginning it would have had much more longevity and impact.

SM: What do you think the private sector needs to do differently to respond at scale to these bigger issues?

JC: This is my personal opinion and does not represent that of Ben & Jerry’s. I don’t think business can solve this. I don’t think grassroots movements can solve this. I don’t think governments can solve this. I think all of those entities must work on this.

Businesses are in state houses and capitals around the world for their own self interest all the time. We might see more impact if we applied that same approach to putting in place rules and regulations that are going to hopefully save us. At Ben & Jerry’s, we take the same tools, teams and insights we use to sell people ice cream, to sell people into a movement. That can get these policies into place.

SM: What do you think it will take to motivate lasting change?

JC: If we continue on our current trajectory, increased natural disasters, coupled with increased income disparity, will likely lead to massive social unrest. Unless we can stave off the worst of both of those. It’s hard to do business in a scenario like that. I think people are waking up to that reality. The question is will that reality come to enough people in time?

SM: Do you think it’s going to require a generational shift to change existing power dynamics?

JC: I want to believe the powers that be will see the wisdom. But again, being a student of history, that has never happened. I’m not sure we’re going to get there without that generational shift coupled with things getting worse before they get better.

SM: What does a brand like Ben & Jerry’s do in this context?

JC: We’re doing two things. One is getting out there and doing the work and campaigns on the issues that matter. We’re also trying to lead the way. We’re not the only ones out there, but that was why I wrote the “6Ps of Brand Activism”. It was to show other companies that they don’t have to make this up. You’ll see us trying to inspire and recruit more businesses to take this approach.

SM: Is there an unlock that you think is waiting to happen?

JC: There was a period three to seven years ago where Ben & Jerry’s was trying to inspire the youth to get involved in these movements. Now, we’re taking the lead from them on how we can continue to accelerate what they’re doing. That inspires me. When I need hope, that’s where I look.

SM: Is there any addendum to the “6P’s of Brand Activism” you’d like to add?

JC: Understanding the history of what got us here helps us understand where we want to go. We have a three part mission around economic, product and social goals. We work to deliver a fair return to shareholders, make the best ice cream in the world, and use the operations of the business to create change.

We often talk about the link to prosperity. As our company prospers, everyone we touch should. So instead of extracting value from the cocoa farmers we want to add value to their communities. When done right, that model of capitalism can really raise people up.

SM: Is there anything you see that helps get more hands on deck?

JC: When I’m talking to people who think solving climate change is about saving the trees or the polar bears, I am reminded that the earth will be much better off as an ecosystem without humans. Solving climate change, or social inequity, is about saving our society. I think it becomes clear to anyone who has children or grandchildren. We’re more than just to look after ourselves.

Written by

CEO We First Inc, author NYT's bestseller We First, strategic corporate consultant and trainer, father, Australian, optimist.

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