Ice-cream scoops with dollops of purpose – the Ben & Jerry’s way

In 1978 in a quaint town in Vermont, USA there existed a small ice cream company called Ben & Jerry’s. Childhood friends Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield who couldn’t make it to medical school or sell enough pottery, discovered their passion for creating unique and indulgent ice cream flavours. Having done a $5 correspondence course (via snail mail) in ice-cream making, they opened their first ice cream shop in a dilapidated gas station.  Before their ten year anniversary, Ben and Jerry’s sales reached $32 million and they were active in 18 states of the US. Soon enough they were a well-known global brand. 

Over the years, Ben & Jerry’s distinguished itself in three areas: their delicious high-quality ice cream (loaded with mix-ins and butterfat); the pun-riddled names of flavours such as Cherry Garcia or Karamel Sutra; and being a values-driven company where its social and environmental mission is central to the business. 

We love making ice cream – but using our business to make the world a better place gives our work its meaning”, was the company’s purpose.  

For the founders, using ice-cream to change the world meant integrating social concerns and interest of stakeholders into day-to-day business activities. This way of doing business was contrary to the predominant narrative at that time – companies had to be consumer-led, whether in product development or in their mission, and the only social responsibility of a business was to increase its profits. 

Long before ‘stakeholder capitalism’ and ESG became fashionable, Ben & Jerry’s coined the term ‘Linked Prosperity’, to describe their approach to doing business. They strove to ensure that everyone who is part of their business ecosystem benefits and prospers, and considered the broader social and environmental implications of their actions.  To achieve this, Ben & Jerry’s implements various practices such as fair trade sourcing of organic ingredients, supporting local dairy farms producing milk that does not have artificial growth hormones,  compostable and chemical free packaging, and reducing garbage output. The company uses their platform to take a public stance on issues aligned with their values – climate change, racial justice, LGBTQ+ rights, halting sale of ice-cream in Israel occupied Palestinian territories, to ending paid advertisements on Twitter due to proliferation of hate speech on the platform.  

In 2000 when Ben & Jerry’s was acquired by Unilever, what set it apart from a typical corporate takeover was that Ben & Jerry’s maintained its status as an independent subsidiary under Unilever. An Independent Board of Directors (where Unilever appoints only 2 of the 11 Board members) meant that the company retained a significant degree of autonomy, allowing it to preserve its distinct brand identity, as a socially conscious business that maintains its values, culture, and community involvement. 

One would wonder what the impact of Ben & Jerry’s stance on social issues would have on the viability of the business? In their case, it seems the brand has created customer loyalty and love due to their stake-holder centered business approach. The brand has not disappointed its shareholders either – the brand has become Uniliever’s largest with a projected sales of $2.2bn of sales this year, accounting for 2.6 per cent of the global ice-cream market — up from 1.4 per cent in 2013.

The story of Ben & Jerry’s speaks to our research on one of the attributes that makes businesses thrive and be resilient in the face of chaos and complexity. That is – Big Picture Alignment – where the organisation brings a stakeholder partnership mindset beyond only shareholder value. The sense of shared purpose is so deeply integrated and alive that purpose guides difficult choices.

If you’re curious about how your organisation, teams and leaders can thrive – do reach out for a chat. 

About Mandira Kala

Mandira is a qualified leadership coach. She is a graduate in Psychology from LSR, New Delhi, MSW from TISS, Mumbai, PhD in Public Policy from University of Massachusetts, Boston. She is passionate about developing leaders who contribute to their workplace by transforming mindsets, creating a culture of cultivating and harnessing people potential, and beating the odds to deliver beyond imagination.

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