Art & Commerce: Consumer Republic

Will Unilever keep Ben & Jerry’s devoted customers?
The ’60s are so dead it hardly seems necessary to go on killing them, yet the culture keeps driving new stakes through their heart. The latest was struck in late January at a rally in front of the Haight Street Ben & Jerry’s Scoop Shop in San Francisco. Led by Wavy Gravy in a clown suit, 200 people gathered to protest a corporate takeover of Ben & Jerry’s, beacon of socially conscious capitalism.
“Calling all cows,” he cried, and indeed, according to reports, there was something vaguely bovine about this “demonstration.” At one point, a police officer approached the crowd. Instead of whipping out his pepper spray, the cop obligingly donned a plastic pig nose, posed for a picture with Wavy and indulged in a free ice cream cone. We have gone from offing the pigs to feeding them.
Since early December, Wall Street has considered the takeover of the Vermont ice cream company a done deal that no parody of a political demonstration could derail. Given Ben & Jerry’s lagging stock price, the only question was who would buy it. Just a few months ago, founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield were talking about selling to a group of “socially responsible” investors.
But on April 13, the inevitable happened: Anglo-Dutch Unilever scooped up Ben & Jerry’s, besting Swiss Nestlƒ, the U.K.’s Diageo and Italy’s Roncadin. The very week protesters were in Washington, D.C., for a rematch with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, Vermont became another outpost of the global economy.
So ends the independent saga of a company that offered consumers a double treat: a tasty product and a philosophy to feel good about. True, when it came to running the business, Ben & Jerry tended to be a little less “socially aware.” They opposed unions, were fined for violating sewage disposal regulations and broke their own egalitarian salary structure to nab a Fortune 500 CEO–all taboos to its leftist fans.
But there was also the pledge not to buy milk from dairy farmers who use Bovine Growth Hormone, the 7.5 percent of pretax earnings donated to Vermont charities, the financial support and training to help wean the poor off welfare, the help for the rain forest. The product was “homemade,” straight from the cows, close to the earth and contributed to the community. Plus, it had funny neo-hippie names boomers could relate to and their juniors feel ironic about.
The result? Consumers formed the kind of emotional attachment to the brand that brings tears to the eyes of account planners. Indeed, over the four months the takeover drama unfolded, there were not only hapless “protest” demonstrations by those determined to keep Ben & Jerry’s “multiflavor, not multinational,” but letter-writing campaigns and Web sites that encouraged consumers to buy company stock and vote against a sale. (Those who did made out well with Unilever.)
Can those passions survive the company’s new owners? The key is remembering that the most important asset Ben & Jerry’s brings to its new owner is not ice cream. Ice cream is a thing, and producing things is so Old Economy. The beauty of Ben & Jerry’s is it’s an ongoing PR opportunity–and always has been. With paltry annual ad budgets, Ben & Jerry’s was a pure word-of-mouth success. In its 21 years of independence, it became a Vermont tourist attraction and the state’s most famous export this side of maple syrup.
The folks at Unilever give every indication they understand this. They are preserving a separate Ben & Jerry’s board, complete with Cohen and Greenfield, as well the 7.5 percent charitable contribution. Then there’s $15 million in upfront cash donations, including $5 million to be distributed to employees who might miss out on the $326 million in cash Unilever paid.
It is a handsome gesture, even for a company worth $45 billion. For the fans of the company’s culture, such actions must be as comforting as eating a pint of Chunky Monkey.
Although Wall Street never rewarded Ben & Jerry’s until the global giants came knocking, capitalism itself owes a debt of thanks to these two ex-hippies who started making super-premium ice cream in a Vermont gas station. Begun as a locally focused alternative to business as usual, Ben & Jerry’s now commences a new life as the official brand of socially responsible global capitalism.
Too bad there’s no organization to bestow some token of the world economy’s esteem. Or is there? What about the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund? They both could use some good PR. K