Brand Baby: Ben & Jerry’s – rediscovering purpose

Ben and Jerry’s both indulges and mystifies me in roughly equal measure. Their super delicious and refreshing products are guaranteed to put me a good mood especially after grocery shopping with the three boys in tow. Indeed, bribing the boys with a visit to the Mount Kisco Scoop Shop is a sure fire way to stop them putting the 100th Spider Man cookie into the cart as the temptation of vanilla ice-cream cones with rainbow sprinkles overpowers the lure of sugared super-heroes. As the boys grapple with the generous sized ice creams I usually indulge in a frozen latte before all hell breaks loose as their attention diverts to emptying out the napkin dispenser, over-filling the complementary water cups and playing with the in-store merchandise thoughtfully or annoyingly placed (depending if you are an adult or a child) at just the right eye height for under 7’s to play with.

Despite the stress of eating in a Ben & Jerry’s Scoop Shop, I can feel semi-relaxed as their treats are almost guilt free (minus the calories of course!). After all Ben & Jerry’s promises mostly natural, homemade products brought to us in socially responsible ways; although some may dispute the credibility of these claims as some of their products contain corn syrup. With that said, Ben & Jerry’s have a social conscience; they democratize their premium product through their Free Scoop Days (yes!), they publicly support Occupy Wall Street and they’ve whole heartedly adopted ingredients that are Fair Trade Certified. Their brand personality also comes in scoopfuls - just think of their delightful product names and innovative flavor combinations.

So the thing that mystifies me is their in-store experience. Up and down the East Coast, at least, their stores feel more vanilla than Bonnaroo Buzz. The branding of their Scoop Shops is text book. All the elements of their brand identity are there – we’re reminded of their mission by words painted on the cheerfully colored walls, and the “happy cow” from wholesome Vermont stares benignly down on us; and despite all of this they feel soulless. Their zany decor and tone of voice is starting to feel tired, formulaic and a bit contrived. I want them to come down from their corporate pulpit, have a chat with me and show me who they really are again. Today, a good brand experience seamlessly links commitment to a macro cause with the micro aspects of their consumer’s day-to-day life. Further, the brand values the consumer as an equal partner in creating the experience and helping it achieve its mission.

Ben & Jerry’s brand could play a role as a community beacon - a precious after school hang out for families with on-brand activities to keep the kids engaged - pin the tail on the cow, name the new born calf, home-work zones, ice-cream eating competitions, skate boarding contests in the parking lots, guess how many skittles in the jar and so on; families would bed and breakfast there, especially when there’s another power outage. Leveraging their social mission is a must to bring them closer to their heritage and reignite their in-store experience. I imagine them hosting debates about world events, discussions about social injustices or local community issues. Teens and Gen Yers as typically more socially conscious cohorts would relate readily and thrive on these face-to face conversations despite their commitment to virtual networking.

As companies across all sectors embrace the shift towards corporate transparency that recent world events demand, the risk for Ben & Jerry’s is their once differentiating values will become generic, from a product perspective they may lose market share to competitors with parity, cheaper priced products; and the Scoop Shops may not continue to be commercially viable propositions unless they drive more traffic. It would be great to see Ben & Jerry’s rediscovering their genuine spirit, which has been diluted since the Unilever acquisition. They would have a more compelling brand experience if they brought their activist core to the fore in a way that fits with today’s zeitgeist and leads the category debate. Ultimately, I’d like to see them deliver on their opportunity to be a force for change in the world – if they did this I’d stay longer in their Scoop Shops and buy a few more frozen lattes and ice creams.

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