Ben & Jerry's Secret Formula for Marketing: No Apologies

CEO Walt Freese Won't Worry if Some People Hate Its Messages

By Published on .

Ben & Jerry's doesn't care if you hate it.

Sounds like a strange thing to say about a company most of us think of as a loving tree-hugger of an organization, but it's true-and that devil-may-care attitude is one of the ice cream purveyor's biggest assets.

But we'll come back to that. Let's first talk about Ben & Jerry's promotional model, because it is another strength and is diametrically different than the approach of most marketers. Ben & Jerry's doesn't spend time or money positioning, hard-selling or even branding its products. It doesn't use the common outside-in approach of testing what resonates with consumers in order to decide on strategy and messaging.

Instead it uses an inside-out approach: It works out what it stands for and what its employees want it to stand for, and then communicates that through events and guerrilla marketing, most of which focus on a social, environmental or political issue and not-or not obviously-on product. Even the product names and packaging often convey a stance as much as they do the contents of the tub.

This marketing recipe has changed little over the years, not even after the brand was taken over in 2000 by Unilever. And it works. Typically Haagen-Dazs, Ben & Jerry's closest rival, has outspent it in marketing dollars by 25% to 50%-last year the difference was considerably greater-yet the Vermont company sells as much ice cream as its Nestle-owned rival (it claims to sell more).

In effect, Ben & Jerry's strong stances are a sort of loyalty program that create a hardcore group of heavy users-no pun intended-who seek out its products. CEO Walt Freese admits that has a strong financial upside. "We try to create trial, too, but loyal customers are the most profitable because we're spending nothing to acquire them."

Its stances are heavily embedded in Ben & Jerry's DNA, and in everything it chooses to do, whether that be the way it treats its employees, where it gets its ingredients or where it opens a scoop shop. All of which gives Ben & Jerry's approach authenticity-and thus longevity.

But many marketers already know this, and know they couldn't replicate it. Not every company can be simultaneously activist and corporate behemoth. So there is little learning here, right? Wrong. Listening to Freese at the recent Cause Marketing Forum, I was struck by the fact that these fluffy, hippie Vermonters have something that so many marketers need-balls!

How many companies say they want to be differentiated, but then choose safe, broad messages to please everyone? Answer: most of them. This is a world in which food companies apologize for food, pharmaceutical companies apologize for improving the nation's health, alcoholic beverage providers shy away from ads showing people having too much fun, and most marketers beg for public mercy the moment some fringe advocacy group declares itself offended by a message that wasn't aimed at them in the first place.

How refreshing then to hear Walt say that he doesn't care if everyone likes Ben & Jerry's. "Half the people will love it, half the people will hate it," he says. "We don't try to pretend we're anything we're not. You shouldn't be afraid of who you are."

Sure, it's not easy to be so carefree when there's a battery of lawyers and politicians eager to make capital out of any corporation that oversteps the boundaries, but many companies use that as an excuse when what they really fear is offending a single potential customer. Such fear leads to ineffective, vanilla marketing. Maybe Ben & Jerry's success suggests more marketers should release their inner Chunky Monkey.

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