Aside from churning out beloved flavors like Chunky Monkey and Cherry Garcia, Ben & Jerry’s has long made a name for itself as a corporate activist, taking center stage on social issues like criminal justice reform, voting rights issues and climate change. As a household name, Ben & Jerry’s knows that its role as a company extends beyond the products it creates, holding itself to higher social and political standards and working to be a force for good in the industry and beyond. And while its bold and progressive stances on hot-button issues delivered good press and a growing social following during recent social movements like Black Lives Matter, the company’s recent announcement that it would end the sale of its products in occupied Palestinian territories was Half Baked at best.
The announcement was poorly received in Israel, as well as in New York and New Jersey among Jewish retailers. And while the decision to cease sales has garnered support from groups like the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, the question remains: Was this the right decision for Ben & Jerry’s?
This is a big question to consider, and Ben & Jerry’s isn’t the only company facing decisions like this. More and more, consumers look to their favorite brands and companies to make public stances on social and political issues. Seventy-three of Americans expect companies to provide leadership on social issues and nowadays, when action isn’t taken, companies are signing up for an almost-guaranteed public meltdown.
For businesses, the question is no longer if, but when to take action in the wake of a social threat.
With 82 percent of Americans wanting companies to do right by their workers, customers, community and the environment, businesses should be turning their focus to proactive strategies that will guide them through difficult decisions. Ben & Jerry’s, for example, should’ve considered several key factors before acting, considerations that any business should make before issuing statements or implementing company policy changes in the wake of social threats.
Let’s take a look at a few lessons learned from the Ben & Jerry’s case study:
Know your brand
This perhaps seems obvious, but you can’t put your corporate values to action if you aren’t sure what those values are and how they relate to the issue at hand. Ben & Jerry’s social mission is “to use our Company in innovative ways to make the world a better place.” Just months prior to Ben & Jerry’s decision, there was violence and unrest in the region as Hamas fired rockets into Israel and Israel responded with deadly airstrikes in Gaza.
The brand’s response to end ice cream sales to the occupied territories poses an arguably negligible problem for Israel, impacting at most only 6 percent of the population living in one of the country’s settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. So if the move does not actually have a meaningful impact on sales or Israeli policies, the purpose could be construed as a response to employee sentiment, create a marketing splash or both. If so, the company certainly achieved its goals. If it sought to “make the world a better place,” the jury is still out.
Regardless of the goal or end result, the move was on-brand for Ben & Jerry’s. The company has long spoken out on the heated political issues of our time. What is different about today’s environment is the virality of corporate statements — and the potential blowback.
Know your audience
The aftermath of the company’s move was volatile and prompted responses from many that Ben & Jerry’s may not have considered in its decision-making process. In Israel, the move has been called anti-Semitic and “a new kind of terrorism,” yet Israeli settlers are not fazed: “Why should we give in? It’s just ice-cream,” said one resident of the Efrat settlement. Stateside, Jewish retailers have stopped carrying Ben & Jerry’s products in their stores, but for most of us with a craving for Phish Food, we will most likely look for the brand’s iconic packaging when we hit the frozen section.
While companies can’t expect to make everyone happy, applying an objective process to determine the response could have saved Ben & Jerry’s significant heartburn.
Know your path forward
Whether its action was advisable or not, Ben & Jerry’s move was definitely on brand. For many companies struggling with when and how to respond to external social issues, the aftermath of a statement can be just as difficult to navigate as the decision to make one in the first place. Having a plan for follow-up is key, and viewing it as a flavor of crisis mitigation can be helpful. Following the controversy, company founders Bennett Cohen and Jerry Greenfield penned an opinion piece in the New York Times defending the company’s actions and standing their ground on their political stance. Whether this was planned all along or a response to the controversy, we can’t know for sure, but it sure looked like the brand was on defense.
To avoid being caught flat-footed, companies need a structure that removes emotion and provides discipline to the decision-making process. The Social Threat Analysis & Response framework is an example of exactly how brands can establish a process of rigorous analysis to the assessment of social threats to ensure the best possible response for individual brands and their target audiences.
In today’s politically charged landscape, it’s more important than ever to equip yourself with all the tools and information possible in order to provide a tailored response based on thorough and objective assessment. Doing so can take the risk out of social issues, turning them into an opportunity for success, sometimes even with a cherry on top.
Lindsay Singleton is the managing director of D.C.-based public affairs firm ROKK Solutions, where she leads the Social Impact Communications practice. Caitlin Slone is a senior account executive at ROKK Solutions and supports the firm’s groundbreaking Social Threat Analysis and Response work.
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