Like the new parent of the socially conscious ice cream company, Mr. Freese is concerned with both driving sales and maintaining the corporate culture it was built on.
With nearly two decades of marketing experience, Mr. Freese knows how to drive sales. In 1988, he left his post at Celestial Seasonings, a small entrepreneurial tea company that had been purchased by Kraft Foods, to run sales and marketing for Nestle's beverage unit, where he proceeded to drive revenue up 62% over three years. After various stints including head of marketing for apparel retailer Casual Corner and leading the marketing and sales consulting group Spectra Market Metrix, Mr. Freese returned to Celestial Seasonings in 1997.
"I really wanted to work for a values-driven business with a sense of social mission; that was probably the driving factor for me," he said. But Mr. Freese also saw dramatic growth potential for the Celestial brand. That potential was realized as he, first in the role of general manager of wellness products and most recently as president-grocery products for Hain Celestial Group and general manager, Celestial Seasonings, helped drive sales 57% over a three-year period.
"That we were able to do that from a values-driven place, maintaining a corporate culture that was down-to-earth and devoid of politics and ego, taught me once and for all, that you can run a successful business and do it by doing good," he said.
And that attitude is exactly what Unilever was seeking.
"Walt has strong marketing skills, broad experience and, even more importantly, much needed experience with values-led businesses," said Ben & Jerry's CEO Yves Couette, a long-time Unilever veteran. "His personality and attitude in interacting with people are a great fit with the Ben & Jerry's culture."
Despite some industry skepticism a corporate behemoth like Unilever would uphold the homespun cause-marketing roots of Ben & Jerry's, Mr. Freese said Unilever executives have been "actively supportive of our social action mission and in fact want to learn about it from us. They're trying to nurture the brand without interfering with it."
Unilever was looking for somebody who had experience with what Mr. Freese calls "experience" brands with "a depth of consumer relationship that goes beyond a positioning statement, where consumers understand there's a sense of mission beyond the product and its attributes. At Celestial, we used to talk about truth, beauty and goodness as guiding principles. ... Ben & Jerry's takes that to a whole other level."
Mr. Freese has embarked on an initiative to address global warming and is working with suppliers to make them more socially responsible. At the same time, Mr. Freese hopes to drive the brand through new platforms "beyond line extensions," and to expand internationally and into new channels in the U.S.
Ben & Jerry's will stay true to its roots with unexpected, nontraditional grass-roots efforts, Mr. Freese said. And, he added, "as mass-marketing vehicles become less effective for larger brands, they're getting better at grass-roots and viral marketing, so [we] have to do it better than ever before."
Ben & Jerry's used Black Rocket, San Francisco for its summer radio campaign last year, but is "evaluating brand strategies going forward," Mr. Freese said.