The Ben and Jerry’s lessons for aspiring prime ministers

Ben and Jerry’s, according to Tory leadership hopeful Kemi Badenoch, epitomizes the tendency to put social justice before productivity and profits, one cause of our “economic, social, cultural and intellectual malaise”.

But that wasn’t enough to save Wavy Gravy.

The Woodstock entertainer inspired one of the company’s early cult favourites, a caramel, cashew and brazil nut ice cream with a chocolate hazelnut fudge swirl and roasted almonds.

Not long after the Vermont-based business sold out to Big Freezer in the form of conglomerate Unilever, Wavy was cut loose, along with the royalties that helped fund the clown’s Camp Winnarainbow for disadvantaged children.

The flavour, according to Ice Cream Social, a history of the company, had always been a nightmare to make with expensive ingredients. Still, the marketing juggernaut of the north-east briefly resurrected Wavy in a 2005 contest. It remains in the company’s Flavor Graveyard online, with a suitably corny poem on its tombstone.

The unsentimental fact is that the forces of global capitalism sent this hippie icon packing for no other reason than not enough people were buying it and it cost too much to make.

It wasn’t entirely clear from Badenoch’s speech what share of the blame Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield bear for a 15-year stagnation in UK growth and living standards, exacerbated in recent years by a sense of total political and policy dysfunction.

By most measures, the American duo are the kind of outrageous business success worth celebrating, the type that starts with a $5 correspondence course in 1978 and ends up as one of only 13 Unilever brands with more than €1bn in global sales.

The offbeat flavours, quirky names, bright packaging and campaigning ethos are, to some extent, all part of the marketing schtick. Branding, said Bernstein’s Bruno Monteyne, is a “tax on our emotions” (which may explain why this crop of Conservative tax-slashers aren’t so keen). Perhaps this also explains why a tub sets you back the best part of a fiver in the UK.

In a consumer goods world battling customer apathy with established brands, Ben and Jerry’s grew 9 per cent last year. Perhaps people like ice cream with a conscience and are prepared to pay for a warm feeling with their cold treat? Maybe they just like the taste, and are ignoring the rest of it? Unilever probably doesn’t care.

None of which is to say the company is putting it on. Authenticity is the foundation of great marketing, in ice cream and politics. The fundamentals are there: Ben and Jerry’s gives 7.5 per cent of pre-tax profits to charity and a fair deal to its farmers. Its campaigning tendencies are long-established: its environmental tub One Sweet Whirled launched in 2002, a couple of decades before the UK’s net zero commitment that Badenoch wants to ditch. Its fans have prompted innovation, petitioning for plant-based products in 2014, a market that every food company in the known universe is now trying to crack.

For those annoyed that all this translates into business success, the free market solution is to set up a rival — which has been tried. Star-Spangled Ice Cream produced Gun Nut, Small GovernMint and Iraqi Road in the 2000s, donating a share of proceeds to US armed forces charities. It cost $76 for four quarts. Oddly, flavors like I Hate the French Vanilla didn’t go global.

Ben and Jerry’s have managed to mix good ice cream with folksy fun, campaigning controversy and the cold realities of capitalism. Independence from Unilever is something of a convenient fiction for both sides — exposed by the almighty bust-up over the company’s decision to halt sales in the occupied Palestine territories and the ensuing lawsuit over Unilever’s move to sell the brand to a local licensee.

But the forces for profit certainly aren’t neutralized by a social conscience, as Badenoch fears. Conservative hopefuls and ice cream makers share more than she thinks. Both are trying to capture the attention of people who might like them, without irredeemably alienating too many others.

Ben and Jerry’s, however, has combined that with good branding, solid underlying policies and a genuinely appealing product. It will never catch on. Certainly not in UK politics.

helen.thomas@ft.com
@helentbiz

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