I recently had the pleasure of attending the Sustainable Brands conference in San Diego and one of the panels featured Ben & Jerry’s Activism Manager, Christopher Miller, and Senior Global Marketing Manager, Jay Curley. In contrast to the majority of brand marketers who think in a very similar way when it comes to leveraging their brand to have social impact, Christopher and Jay shared the different approach that Ben & Jerry’s takes that has led them to become synonymous with issues such as climate change and that has positioned their products with the badge value of authentic social activism. This approach is one that any brand could take if they had a similar commitment to authenticity and appetite for risk.
Typically, a brand approaches its CSR, sustainability or Foundation work using the following hierarchy and mindset: First comes the company, then comes the brand, and then finally the social impact the company creates through corporate citizenship, sustainability or Foundation efforts. It’s a natural logic especially when you consider the necessary focus on the company and its bottom line that all brands must have.
Yet counterintuitively, Ben & Jerry’s has built their bottom line to become one of the fastest growing Unilever brands by doing something very different, as Christopher and Jay explained. In contrast to the hierarchy outlined above, here are three key steps they take in thinking through consumer engagement and social activism:
1. Start with your values: As Christopher and Jay explained on-stage, their programs don’t start in a windowless room with strategists staring at a blank sheet of paper. Instead, they look directly to the core values of the brand as the compass for all of their marketing. These values inform their Mission that has three parts:
a) Our Product Mission drives us to make fantastic ice cream – for its own sake.
To make, distribute and sell the finest quality all natural ice cream and euphoric concoctions with a continued commitment to incorporating wholesome, natural ingredients and promoting business practices that respect the Earth and the Environment.
b) Our Economic Mission asks us to manage our company for sustainable financial growth.
To operate the company on a sustainable financial basis of profitable growth, increasing value for our stakeholders and expanding opportunities for development and career growth for our employees.
c) Our Social Mission compels us to use our company in innovative ways to make the world a better place.
To operate the company in a way that actively recognizes the central role that business plays in society by initiating innovative ways to improve quality of life locally, nationally and internationally.
2. Identify partners and movements that support those values: Typically a brand is very conscious to secure and maintain ownership of the impact it creates in order to, understandably, get the credit it is due. In contrast, Ben & Jerry’s seeks to support and leverage the momentum of existing partners and movements that share the same values and are mission-aligned. Not only does this instantly bring weight and scale to their efforts, but it also wisely offsets the relatively high cost of managing programs or leading movements on your own. One such example is their recent partnership with Tesla to raise awareness around climate change. As part of Ben & Jerry’s year-long Save our Swirled campaign, which sought to inspire more people around the world to support the global climate movement, the iconic ice cream company ditched the conventional ice cream truck in favor of a customized emissions-free Tesla.
3. Mobilize your community in service of those movements: The final and critical last step is to mobilize your brand community in service of those movement. While this may sound simple, the message it sends to your consumers is profound. First, it makes it clear that your company is genuinely committed to its values because it is not solely focused on itself or to be the sole recipient of credit for social impact. Second, it serves as a demonstration that these issues are larger than any one person or company and that we must collaborate to realize the change we are seeking to create. Third, it transforms consumers into activists for change and positons the brand as a partner that creates opportunities for them to co-own the brand and, in so doing, find greater meaning for themselves.
These three simple steps represent a powerful and effective departure from how brands typically approach social impact initiatives and marketing. The benefits are many, including establishing a badge value for the products that drive sales, demonstrating an authentic commitment to issues bigger than the brand itself, and creating a powerful opportunity to engage your consumers in meaningful and creative ways. The net result of these benefits is that your customer community builds your business and social impact with you, which is exactly what every brand marketer should hope for.
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