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By James McKean
With their brightly coloured packaging and punning flavour names that could put any student journalist to shame, Ben and Jerry’s has become a ubiquitous and powerful brand within the global ice cream industry. For those of us who have grown familiar with the peculiar sugar-induced queasiness that only over-consumption of ‘Phish food’ ice cream can bring on, it may come as a surprise to learn that the brand started off in a run-down petrol station in Vermont.
Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, who took what at the time must have seemed the illogical step of turning to ice cream making after two unsuccessful attempts to get into medical school, set up the first Ben and Jerry’s in Burlington in 1978 as an ice cream parlour, neither one with any knowledge of ice cream making beyond a brief distance learning course they had taken. Despite some initial teething problems (the pair temporarily shut the shop after two months in business with a sign on the door telling customers: “We’re closed to figure out whether we’re making any money”), they soon expanded and opened their first franchise in 1981, starting to distribute their ice cream in tubs, as opposed to simply on their own premises, soon after.
Whilst Cohen and Greenfield still lend their names to the product and continue to contribute suggestions on the upholding of the brand’s ideals, they no longer have any managerial involvement with the company, having sold it to Unilever in 2000. Their purchase by the multinational company, which owns over 400 brands, has led some to wonder if Ben and Jerry’s has betrayed the ideals that they had striven to promote over the course of their previous 22 years in business. They have consistently stressed their dedication to environmental and social causes as a company, and their website still proudly pronounces the brand’s three-part ‘Mission Statement’ of social, environmental and economic responsibility.
As early as 1985 they established the ‘Ben and Jerry’s Foundation’, through which they donated money from their yearly profits to community-based projects, whilst they have worked on reducing the number of their freezer cabinets using HydroFluoroCarbons as opposed to more environmentally friendly HydroCarbon freezers. Cohen and Greenfield both defended the decision to sell to Unilever at the time, claiming that they would work with the corporate giant to continue to promote the values that the brand had always ensconced?
There can be no denying that adjustments were inevitable- Ben and Jerry’s was sold for $326 million in 2000, a far cry from its humble beginnings in Vermont, and it is arguable that such a drastic growth in size and economic value necessitated some sort of change in ideology. A sense of corporate responsibility and social commitment is, furthermore, a fundamental angle from which to promote the brand, and it would thus be against Unilever’s interests to disregard the company’s legacy in this area. In the statement pronouncing its acquisition of Ben and Jerry’s, Unilever announced that they would retain the quality and production method of the product, ensuring it would retain a degree of sustainability and remain suitable for vegetarians, and that it would commit 7.5 percent of its profits to a foundation, to which Unilever would itself contribute $5 million.
As for the brand’s future, Cohen and Greenfield continue to keep a vigilant eye on the corporate image and social contribution of Ben and Jerry’s – in 2011, for example, they released a statement in favour of the Occupy Wall Street movement, saying “We support this call to action and are honoured to join you in this call to take back our nation and democracy.” Despite their contribution to the expanding waist lines of America and the UK (you know a company isn’t messing around when it releases a ‘Cake Batter’ flavour of ice cream), they look set to remain a leading brand in the industry for years to come.