Ben & Jerry's keeps its folksy focus

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Despite its new ownership by mega-conglomerate Unilever Bestfoods, Ben & Jerry's Homemade plans to stick with its signature marketing formula of grass-roots social activism.

Under the leadership of longtime Unilever veteran Yves Couette, named CEO in late January, the ice cream marketer's efforts this summer will still reflect the low-budget, community-focused tactics on which the company was built. New ice cream varieties planned for this summer will spark donations to national nonprofits, while a radio-supported promotion will recognize volunteers in local communities and place them as "stars" in a Ben & Jerry's-made movie.

"Unilever is a resource for us in terms of training, research, things like that, but in terms of bolstering our [marketing] budget, that's not going to be the case," said Lisa DeNatale, Ben & Jerry's director of marketing. "With marketing, new-product development and planning, there is a very strong commitment to continue to do the things on which the brand has built its reputation."

Analysts also say the fact that Ben & Jerry's is owned by a huge multinational matters little to the consumer. "The c0nsumer generally has no clue about who makes what [product]," said Jaine Mehring, analyst at Salomon Smith Barney, New York. "As long as the product tastes the same and the image has remained the same, they don't care who's pulling the strings."

Ben & Jerry's is currently in the process of choosing a new ad agency with which to partner. Its relationship with agency of record, MarchFirst's McKinney & Silver, Raleigh, N.C., ended even before the Unilever purchase, under former Chief Marketing Officer Michael Sands, due to limited budget and the nontraditional executions of the majority of Ben & Jerry's efforts. Although McKinney was used to develop ideas, the bulk of last year's "Stop and taste the ice cream" effort was handled internally and by Interpublic Group of Cos.' Deutsch, New York, which spearheaded promotions and public relations. According to Competitive Media Reporting, Ben & Jerry's spent only $3.2 million in 1999 and $2.5 million from January through September of 2000.

"While agencies have been a resource for us, we have not necessarily relied on them in terms of overall strategic direction," Ms. DeNatale said. The company has not decided what role its yet-to-be-named agency will play in future efforts, she said.

Questions about Unilever's continued focus on the ice cream marketer's socially conscious missions were raised in November, when Unilever management passed over co-founder Ben Cohen's favored candidate for the CEO slot, longtime Ben & Jerry's board member and ex-Coca-Cola Co. exec Pierre Ferrari. But the worries, at least according to company insiders, have proved unfounded. Unilever primarily brings distribution muscle to the boutique brand, and hopes to grow the division by expanding Ben & Jerry's distribution overseas.

KaBerry KaBoom!, a strawberry and blueberry ice cream with white fudge-covered "cracklin"' candy and a blueberry swirl, is now rolling out to stores in packages that tout a donation of 1.5% of sales to children's playground-building organization KaBoom! The company also will continue its first-time efforts to reach African-American consumers with the launch of Island Paradise and Apple Crumble flavors, which were developed from suggestions gathered over the last year by listeners of syndicated morning-radio personality Tom Joyner. The varieties trigger a donation for the Tom Joyner Foundation, which provides scholarships for historically black colleges and universities.

In addition to the nonprofit-funding varieties, which will be supported mainly with public relations and sampling events, Ben & Jerry's will roll out its Concession Obsession with a multitude of movie-centered endeavors. To support the vanilla-bean ice cream filled with nonpareils, fudge-covered crisped rice candy, peanuts dipped in fudge and caramel-candy swirl, Ben & Jerry's will launch a national contest soliciting nominations for "community stars" who often go unrecognized for their service. Although every entrant will win a "concession" prize, and runners-up will receive Golden Cone statuettes, winners will be featured in a "pint-sized" movie that will premiere in the marketer's Burlington, Vt., headquarters in October. Although exact plans for the effort have yet to be determined, Ben & Jerry's will tout the promotion via a 10-city radio campaign in May as well as with efforts at retail, in Ben & Jerry's Scoop Shops and on its Web site (www.benjerry.com).

Despite limited media expenditures, Ben & Jerry's has found the attention given its community activities by media outlets "goes well beyond what our spend could ever be in terms of garnering awareness," Ms. DeNatale said. The limited-time Festivus flavor launched over the holidays, for example, appeared as a question on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," in TV Guide and in Entertainment Weekly and overall resulted in more than 120 million impressions, she said.

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