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Pete Winter

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Pete Winter

Sep 24, 2020

What can Ben & Jerry’s teach us about brand purpose?


How the ice cream manufacturer’s vocal support of BLM and migrants brings its mission statements to life.

I scream for ice cream

Ben & Jerry’s is a well-known creator of frozen desserts. But that doesn’t mean it’s all they can do – and it’s certainly not all they want to do. Standing up and shouting out for something outside of your core raison d'être can be divisive and controversial. So what makes a brand comment about concerns beyond their remit? What does it tell us about their brand, and how does it impact performance (if at all)?

Stick to what you know best

The Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford hit the headlines during the summer of 2020 by conducting an online campaign to pressure the UK governmentinto guaranteeing free school meal vouchers to 1.3 million children while schools were closed due to the coronavirus lockdown. While he was widely praised for his activism, he also received his fair share of criticism. “Stick to football”, was a common comment sent his way.

This is not the first (and certainly not the last) time a celebrity has been told to stay within their lane. Jennifer Lawrence took a year off to ‘fix democracy’ (“Stick to acting”). English cricketer Ian Botham is an outspoken supporter of Brexit (“Stick to cricket”). And actor James Woods is effusive in his praise of President Trump (“Stick to voicing Grand Theft Auto”). 

Irrespective of political leanings, public comments such as these polarize opinions. Being famous for one thing yet espousing on something entirely different is risky and controversial.

So why would brands do this too? If it costs James Woods roles in Hollywood films, why would brands consider alienating a percentage of their audience, no matter how small?

A brand purpose external to its core product

The answer lies in a brand’s purpose. 

  • Brand vision: where the brand is headed in the future
  • Brand mission: what the company is doing to achieve that vision
  • Brand values: how the brand will act to realize the vision
  • Brand purpose: why the business does what it does

Brand purpose exists outside of what makes the business money, and what drives revenue. A brand’s purpose is often external and distinct from the core mission of the company and how it generates profits.

But why should anyone care? And do consumers really change purchasing behaviors based on brand purpose?

Bezos’ billions

Covid-19 has understandably seen a huge growth in ecommerce, with locked down consumers unable to hit the High Street and instead choosing to order online. Online spend with U.S. retailers grew 30.1% – that’s $60.42 billion – year-over-year for the first six months of 2020 to reach a total of $347.26 billion. 

One of the biggest beneficiaries has been Amazon, who doubled its net profit year-over-year in the first half of 2020 to $5.2 billion, up from $2.6 billion in 2019. Forbes reports that Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos has seen his individual worth rocket to an all-time high of $197.8 billion

This is despite Amazon regularly making the news for its alleged poor treatment of employees. In addition, Amazon, along with other giants such as Facebook and Google, has been accused of tax avoidance schemes. If consumers cared so much for values and purpose, Amazon would yield much of its market share to any number of competitors who are fighting for their piece of the online audience. But Amazon goes from strength to strength, with consumers seemingly valuing convenience and user experience over ethical dilemmas.

What can we learn from Ben & Jerry’s?

Like Rashford, ice cream manufacturer Ben & Jerry’s has been outspoken on humanitarian issues during the summer. In this case, the subject of a series of tweets was the rise of migrants or asylum seekers (depending on your point of view) arriving by boat via the English Channel. In response, the UK government issued a series of rebuttals, labelling Ben & Jerry’s as “overpriced junk food.”

At a similar time, its US Twitter channel was issuing strong messages supporting the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, illustrating how white supremacy must be dismantled.

As brands struggle to gain attention during the coronavirus pandemic, what lessons can be learned from Ben & Jerry’s approach?

1. Voice your beliefs

As you would expect, Ben & Jerry’s has a mission statement based on creating ice cream. However, this is one of three mission statements, in this instance their product mission, which says: 

The final four words are striking: there is no need to justify making delicious ice cream. It is self-explanatory.

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The second mission statement doesn’t mention ice cream at all:

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Likewise its third statement:

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The language in the second statement is particularly interesting. “Compels” is a strong word, indicating that it is an inherent belief and speaking out or taking action when the company feels necessary cannot be avoided. It is inevitable, because it is part of the organization’s DNA. Positive action cannot be stopped. 

2. Back up words with action

Ben & Jerry’s cannot be accused of opportunistic campaigning or jumping on a bandwagon. The company has a long history of activism. The brand has previously used its marketing to help migrants, launching campaigns to help change the law and allow asylum seekers to work.

It has also been a vocal advocate for BLM for a number of years. In 2016 the company wrote an article about “why black lives matter” and produced a detailed piece of research outlining “seven ways we know systematic racism is real”.  

Compare their support of migrants and BLM with the choices made by fashion brand Forever 21. Forever 21 has a mission statement that reads:

 

“Our mission is to inspire positive change on a global scale, we are creating change with transformative programs, as well as in our local communities to address the urgent needs. We want to inspire, educate our audience and partners for them to do the same. Community is the foundation on which our brand was built. Our priorities are improvement, respect, educate and listen – now is the time to learn and grow from our own past.”

 

Forever 21’s mission statement is longer and arguably somewhat vaguer than that of Ben & Jerry’s. But what is the physical manifestation of this ideal? Well, there is a lot of admirable work supporting Pride and the Step Up Women’s Network to name but a couple of charitable causes.

But this can be countered with a series of ill-judged marketing initiatives over recent years. For example, anyone who ordered plus-size clothing online was sent a free diet bar. The retailer was also accused of cultural appropriation by releasing NWA-inspired “Straight Outta Compton” t-shirts and subsequently violated the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 by using the word “Navajo” to describe various items (including a pair of panties).

Anyone can write a brand statement that looks compelling on paper, but those words are empty unless they’re supported by action.

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3. Be bold

Ben & Jerry’s Social Mission deliberately states that it will “use our Company” as part of its social activism. This emphasizes how it is a central part of the brand strategy. The business is not afraid to throw its weight behind what it believes in. It is an all or nothing philosophy. There is no middle ground.

“Making the world a better place” is an all-encompassing concept. It is open for interpretation, which means that Ben & Jerry’s can be flexible to include whatever issues it feels strongly about. Of course, this means that senior executives need to be careful about which incidents and events they want to comment on – especially when Ben & Jerry’s has a powerful ‘all in’ attitude to its brand marketing.

How has it affected brand recognition and performance?

Ben & Jerry’s primary concern is to sell ice cream, not win votes or get laws changed. So what has been the impact of their stance on migrants?

According to data from YouGov BrandIndex, consumers are more inclined to buy the ice cream brand, just a week after the tweet.

  • Consideration score (whether someone would consider purchasing from the brand in future) increased by 10.6 points
  • Purchase intent (whether a brand is someone’s first choice to purchase from) increased by 3.5 points.

And according to Buzz – a net measure of whether consumers have heard anything positive or negative about the brand in the last fortnight – Ben & Jerry’s increased by 9.9 points. 

Meanwhile attention – the sum of positive or negative buzz – increased by 19.3 points.

Furthermore, word of mouth exposure also increased by 13.3 points and was continuing to rise. 

It’s not all good news for Ben & Jerry’s, however. Its ‘reputations’ score, which measures whether someone is proud or embarrassed to work for a brand, dropped by 4.9 points.

Above all don’t be afraid to be vanilla

In a competitive field, Ben & Jerry’s stands out through a vocal and fearsome stance on social and humanitarian issues. Whether its audience agrees with such opinions is neither here nor there. The brand sincerely believes in them, and is prepared to take a no-nonsense approach in bringing them to life. And due to that, it gets people talking about them and is top of mind.

Ben & Jerry’s aim is to “make, distribute and sell the finest quality ice cream and euphoric concoctions”. It is anything but vanilla, in its flavors or its brand messaging.

Key takeaways

  • A brand purpose can establish why the business exists outside of its commercial objectives
  • Backing up your stated purpose with meaningful action emphasizes your integrity and sincerity
  • Beauty pageant-esque platitudes about peace and love get lost in the noise. Be bold and express your voice loudly
  • You can’t please everyone and not everyone will agree with you, but don’t be afraid to be honest
  • The old adage that any publicity is good publicity is generally true; as long as your brand purpose is not threatening or abusive, having a strong brand purpose can boost brand awareness

Want to learn more about how communicating your brand purpose can help your business stand out from the competition? Download: Putting Your Audience First: The New Rules of Content Marketing for 2020 and Beyond.

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Topics: Brand Audience