Ben & Jerry’s Co-Founder on Free Ice Cream, Tweeting & Activism

October 18, 2010

In 1978, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield opened up the first Ben & Jerry’s in a dilapidated gas station in Burlington, VT. From the beginning, the cheery graphics, funky flavor names, and commitment to social causes gave Ben & Jerry’s a fun but progressive ‘flavor.’

Jerry Greenfield spoke with us via phone from Minnesota.

How has the company had to update its “hippie” image to stay relevant with and endeared to customers in the 21st century?

I believe the company has been built on great ice cream, interesting flavors, and a social mission. We continue to come up with interesting flavors. Ben & Jerry’s tries to take a leadership role in ethical issues: for example, the company now uses cage-free eggs, which wasn’t true when we started, milk and cream that haven’t been treated with bovine growth hormones, fair trade, and other practices.

If you were starting B&J today, what would you do to engender the same kind of customer loyalty that worked when you began?

We began as a homemade ice cream parlor in the back of a gas station. It was a very human-scale personal business. Ben and I made and served all the ice cream and responded to all the consumer mail personally. The fact that we were small and hands-on is something I would try again. It’s more difficult if you try to start on a larger scale to keep that personal touch. People today often talk about not having enough start-up capital or resources as a real burden, but for us it was a real benefit.

Did B&J consciously try to create a “cool” counter-cultural image, or were you guys creating your dream company and hoping people would like it?

Jerry Greenfield

A $5 correspondence course from Penn State University on making ice cream is what inspired Greenfield and Cohen to found Ben and Jerry's.

We had no capability of building something that was “cool” – we’re as un-cool as you can be.  We wanted the company to be a representation of who we were and what we stood for. We made ice cream we liked. We ran the business not as a business person would run it, but as a person on the street would run it. So we were trying to be anti-authoritarian, anti-corporate, and human based. It turned out that people really liked that.

You guys have staged some pretty quirky stunts, like building the world’s largest ice cream sundae, and the “Doughboy” campaign. Why did you decide from the get-go to go the strange route?  How do you feel these events help bond customers to B&J?

It goes back to wanting the company to be real, authentic, and genuine. We put our names on the ice cream; our pictures on the container. We offer a money-back guarantee. We wanted to connect with our customers. It wasn’t a business per se, it was a venture that evolved into a business. When it did, we wanted to use it as a vehicle for social change. Rather than regarding people who purchased our ice cream as ‘customers’ and people who worked for us strictly as ‘employees,’ we regarded everyone as working together to bring about change. Obviously, a lot of people just liked the ice cream, and some people worked there because they needed a job, and it was a nice place to work. But when we were operating to our highest aspirations, we were partners with everyone to bring about a different kind of world.

Do you feel like you’ve succeeded in this vision?

I feel like the company has demonstrated that you can have a business and exist for the public good and not just maximize profits. In the scheme of things, though, we’re a pretty small business.

You speak a lot to groups of business owners.  How do they respond to your message, compared to your early days?

The business community is much more receptive than several years ago. Many business people wanted to integrate social value to what they do, but felt they couldn’t do it and be financially successful, because that’s what conventional business thinking tells them. So the people who are predisposed to adding social value are excited when they learn that it’s doable.

Maybe you could speak to the idea of “giving back” to the community as also being good for business.

What we discovered is that the more the company has given back, the more successful we became. That’s not something we really expected. It’s what we believed in and what we wanted to do. But it turns out it’s a very motivating force.

If you were starting out today, how would you employ social media to garner brand loyalty?

I must admit that I’m completely out of touch with social media, but presumably if we were starting out we’d be young guys and would be involved with it.

How do you choose the celebrities featured on your specialty ice cream pints? Why Colbert over Conan or Willie Nelson over Kenny Rogers?

Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream

Stephen Colbert, John Lennon, and Monty Python are a few of the company's celebrity-inspired flavors.

The company tries to connect with people who share similar outlooks on the world. Willie Nelson is involved with supporting family farms; Colbert has a foundation that helps veterans. Jerry Garcia was the first person to have a special flavor named after him. He espoused a world-view that defined counter-culturalism.

What is the first thing you look for personally in customer service?

To me customer service is a very relation-oriented activity. We want people who value relationships. Our customers suggested the flavors Cherry Garcia, Chunky Monkey, and Chubby Hubby. One of the unusual things [about us] is that customers who get in touch with us with an idea get a genuine response, not a legal letter back that in order to give us an idea they need to sign away their life. Ben & Jerry is part of a much larger company (Unilever) that has a consumer response department. But Ben & Jerry’s still maintains its own consumer affairs department. I believe we’re the only brand there that does that.

As a customer, is there a non-ice-cream brand to which you are totally devoted? If so, what is it and why?

I’m a big fan of Patagonia. They were a pioneer in not just a socially and environmentally responsible business, but also used its power to help address issues.

Given Ben & Jerry’s wide and diverse customer base, how do you tread the line between your older customers who maybe aren’t into ‘tweeting’ and younger ones who are social media mavens?

I think that’s a challenge. The company has to work harder at connecting to younger customers. For people who grew up with us, they have a connection based on our earlier activities, and involvement with social issues. It means involving young people at Ben & Jerry’s who naturally connect with their age group. And the company needs to continue to innovate. We now have fat-free sorbet, for instance.

You recently took off the “all-natural” label on your ice creams.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest was saying not all ingredients were “all-natural,” like alkali, which goes through some processing, but takes the bitterness out of chocolate. There is no real hard and fast definition for ‘all-natural.’ Ben & Jerry’s meets the requirements from the FDA. But rather than get into a protracted battle about what is or isn’t all-natural, the company decided to just remove the all-natural label and focus more on our activities like the cage-free eggs, bovine-growth hormone-free milk and cream, our commitment to fair trade, and ethical sourcing, things like that.

I once read that the three most beautiful words in the English language weren’t “I love you” but “Free ice cream.” Do you consider your Free Cone Days more of a lure for new customers, or a way to reward “the base?” On average, how many customers show up for free ice cream day?

Free Cone Day We had our first Free Cone Day on our first anniversary, in 1979, as a thank you for our customers who supported us. It’s still more of a “thank you.” It varies widely, but on average probably three to five thousand people per store turn up for free ice cream day.

That’s a lot of people.

It’s free ice-cream.

We know. It's a lot to take in.

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