ANALYSIS: Consumer PR - Is it meltdown for the Ben & Jerry's brand? - Ben and Jerry may quit following parent Unilever's appointment of a new CEO to the brand. Matthew Arnold examines whether Ben & Jerry's can survive without them

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the hippie entrepreneurs who whipped up Ben and Jerry's Homemade ice cream, weren't too keen on selling their company to Unilever earlier this year. Their board nudged them forward, and after wresting a slate of sale conditions from the Anglo-Dutch food giant in negotiations, they conceded and settled into uneasy roles as company icons and guardians of its trademark social programs. But when a Unilever insider was appointed on November 20 to head Ben & Jerry's over their choice, it caused the company's namesakes to publicly hint at their resignation.

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the hippie entrepreneurs who whipped up Ben and Jerry's Homemade ice cream, weren't too keen on selling their company to Unilever earlier this year. Their board nudged them forward, and after wresting a slate of sale conditions from the Anglo-Dutch food giant in negotiations, they conceded and settled into uneasy roles as company icons and guardians of its trademark social programs. But when a Unilever insider was appointed on November 20 to head Ben & Jerry's over their choice, it caused the company's namesakes to publicly hint at their resignation.

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the hippie entrepreneurs who whipped up Ben and Jerry's Homemade ice cream, weren't too keen on selling their company to Unilever earlier this year. Their board nudged them forward, and after wresting a slate of sale conditions from the Anglo-Dutch food giant in negotiations, they conceded and settled into uneasy roles as company icons and guardians of its trademark social programs. But when a Unilever insider was appointed on November 20 to head Ben & Jerry's over their choice, it caused the company's namesakes to publicly hint at their resignation.

Cohen and Greenfield had been pushing for Pierre Ferrari, a one-time Coca-Cola marketing exec, Atlanta consultant, and longtime Ben & Jerry's board member. A few hours after Unilever announced its appointment of Yves Couette as CEO, Cohen and Greenfield fired off their own press release, short and to the point. 'As owner, Unilever of course has the legal right to manage Ben & Jerry's in the way it sees fit,' they wrote. 'We have not decided whether or not to remain with the company.'

Brand figureheads

Co-founders they may be, but Cohen and Greenfield hold no titled positions with the company and have nothing to do with its day-to-day operations.

'I mostly diddle,' Cohen says.

And yet, they're the lynchpin of the brand's identity, the public faces of a company with a uniquely funky niche. Their mischievously grinning mugs look on from the side of every unbleached paper pint carton sold.

Will the loyal consumers that built the brand abandon it with the flight of its creators?

Larry Smith, president of the Institute for Crisis Management, thinks not. 'The general public and people who buy ice cream are not likely to notice,' he says. 'If they continue to turn out the quality ice cream they're famous for, they won't have a problem. Ben and Jerry are unique and colorful characters, and their personas did a lot toward selling their product, but the brand, the name and logo, is established.'

Mark Kaminsky, a partner at SS+K, says Ben & Jerry's can expect a small dent in sales, 'somewhere around the 3% that Ralph Nader got,' but agrees that most consumers won't notice or won't care. 'For the other 97% of consumers who love high-fat ice cream, it isn't going to matter at all.

I don't really think people care whether Mrs. Fields is at the oven or not.'

If Unilever can maintain the product and the 'spirit of the company,' Kaminsky says, Ben & Jerry's shouldn't suffer much for the loss of Ben and Jerry. Indeed, Famous Amos cookies got along fine without Famous Amos.

And Kentucky Fried Chicken certainly survived the passing of Col. Sanders.

But there's a cautionary tale here, and its name is Wendy. When Snapple, then an irreverent, upstart brand, sold to Quaker, sales plummeted. Just as a glut of new competitors entered the market, Quaker dispatched the line's popular straight-talking spokeswoman, Wendy. 'They made it corporate, and took out the fun and surprise,' says Cone CEO Carol Cone. 'Wendy was real, not polished. The challenge they (Unilever) have is, can they allow in their corporate culture the kind of quirkiness that has made Ben & Jerry's so successful? If Unilever homogenizes Ben & Jerry's, they'll lose a huge part of that asset.'

Cone sees preservation of the company's social mission as a key to maintaining Ben & Jerry's brand equity. 'It was always a socially conscious brand,' she says. 'Will they allow the brand to stand for those sorts of things that are part and parcel of their DNA and a critical part of equity?'

Social responsibility

Since 1978, when they opened their first scoop shop in a renovated Burlington VT, garage, Cohen and Greenfield have preached the gospel of 'values-led business,' a corporate ethos which puts social responsibility on an equal footing with profit. The company has done a host of good works over the years - waiving franchise fees for non-profits, donating a percentage of their profit to charity, and plugging a variety of social and environmental groups, to name a few. Cohen and Greenfield worry that their mission will be neglected under Unilever.

Officials at both Ben & Jerry's and Unilever are sensitive to this concern.

'We've got 800 employees in the company that live and breathe the social mission on a daily basis,' volunteers Ben & Jerry's director of PR Chrystie Heimert. 'It's not a marketing tactic. Ben and Jerry are really supporting us in our social mission, but they're not creating it.'

Cohen and Greenfield are convinced that mission will wither under CEO Couette, and they want consumers to know how they feel about it.

'I believe Ben & Jerry's as we've known it will cease to be,' Cohen told PRWeek. 'I think it's important for all those people that have supported Ben & Jerry's in the past based on our progressive social values to know that's not what the company represents anymore. And to the extent that my persona, my image is associated with the company, it's important that doesn't lead people to believe that the company is acting in accord with my values.'

'We can do that with or without Ben and Jerry,' says Stephen Milton, Heimert's counterpart at Unilever. 'But we want very much to do that with them. As founders, they have a very important role to play, and it's twofold: one is ensuring the continuation of the company's social mission, and the second is insuring that brand integrity is intact, because we're going to grow the brand internationally.'

'The general consensus is that (Couette) is the right guy for the job,' says Heimert. 'It's really important that we stay independent. He's really an insider to Unilever, and I think having someone who knows how Unilever works and how to work that organization will end up keeping us more independent.

He'll be in a position to protect us.'

Unilever has been careful to emphasize Couette's appreciation of the Ben & Jerry's ethos. An introductory press release quoted him as saying he was 'determined to deliver on Ben & Jerry's social mission commitment.' He elaborated: 'I firmly believe that the least socially responsible business is one that's out of business.' Unilever points to his stewardship of an ice cream subsidiary in Mexico that, like Ben & Jerry's, assisted non-profits.

Ben isn't buying it. 'Based on the actions of Unilever so far,' says Cohen, 'it's clear to me that the only way to maintain our socially progressive mission would be to have a CEO familiar with and committed to our social mission.' That CEO, he says, is not Couette.

Cohen hasn't given up the fight and is floating a Solomonic proposal.

'It's interesting to me,' he says, 'that Unilever has two co-chairmen.

Ben & Jerry's could be run by two co-CEOs.'

As both sides square off, the memory of Snapple looms large. The question is, if there is to be a fallout, as looks increasingly likely, how can Unilever avoid a public slanging match?



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