Liberal discourse with a side of ice cream

    Free food often isn’t enough for me to support a political group — namely the left, since I’m a rare political conservative at Northwestern. But free ice cream is a hard thing for me to pass up. So it was with little reservation that I attended the College Democrats’ Fall speaking event, featuring Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield of the renowned Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream.

    Granted, I was expecting the whole “soup and a sermon” bit. I had read about the pair and the corporation they raised, quite literally, from an abandoned gas station in Burlington, Vermont in 1978. I knew that social activism and anti-war rhetoric was simply a part of their brand. And, frankly, I knew that I liked their ice cream enough to sit and listen to them talk for an hour.

    Humor was not only a part of the quest, but was also responsible for the company’s success.

    Though I came with limited expectations (other than some good Chunky Monkey) and I disagreed with some of their logic, Ben and Jerry broadened my horizons and satisfied my sweet tooth.

    Jerry began, and discussed the brand’s history and its rise into the fast-paced, mass-producing corporate world. He and Ben met in gym class in grade school and ended up starting a little ice cream shop because, as he put it, “We were failing at everything we tried to do.”

    He defended the brand’s sale in 2000 to distributor Unilever as being a necessary evil, something that conflicted with their original mission yet was necessary to remain competitive and continue its growth.

    “They have a very good sense of humor,” he joked of Unilever. “On the same day they bought Ben & Jerry’s they also bought Slim-Fast.”

    The more he revealed about the rise of Ben & Jerry’s, the more it was clear that humor was not only a part of the quest, but was also responsible for the company’s success.

    When the young brand was threatened by the larger Pillsbury Corporation that warned its distributors against carrying Ben & Jerry’s on the same trucks as competitor Häagen-Dazs, the two looked to grassroots methods of protest to regain their foothold. They launched their, “What’s the Doughboy Afraid Of?” campaign aimed at the consumer via advertisements, bumper stickers, T-shirts and even a spot on their own pint packaging.

    Although their campaign was a success, they began to question their role as businessmen. But they needed money and sought to provide stock options to Vermont residents rather than accept offers from venture capitalists. They were staying true to their founding values.

    This wasn’t enough. They wanted to be different from other corporations, he said, in that they would value social responsibility just as much as they did their profit margin. After some fine-tuning of this new, dual bottom-line, the team was able to “integrate” its social and environmental concerns in a way that would not only maximize sales but also prove that a corporation could commit itself to social responsibility. Plus, it would make for a kick-ass, albeit highly criticized, marketing program.

    “We are all interconnected,” Jerry said. “And as we help others we can’t help but to be helped in return.” That meant giving 7.5 percent of the company’s pre-tax profits to social causes, which makes them a top charitable donor among public companies.

    Jerry’s delivery showed he had clearly given this speech before. As did Ben, who spoke next. Rather than expand on the history and company philosophy as Jerry had, Ben used all-too-familiar liberal rhetoric.

    In short, Ben criticized the large percentage of the federal budget allocated for defense spending. To him and his team of political advisers, the budget is reflective of Cold War-era initiatives. Rather than spend this money on national defense, he said, it could be spent much more effectively on social programming.

    Ben & Jerry take out the Oreos. Photo by the author.

    Ben and Jerry are children of the Great Society, something Jerry hinted at when mentioning the pair’s reluctance to take on the roles of profit-driven business leaders.

    To illustrate this, Ben brought out Oreo cookies. Stacking them up to represent the breakdown of the federal budget, it was clear the extent to which the allocation was skewed. Yes, the United States spends a fortune (68 Oreos worth, that is) on keeping our arsenals stocked and up to date. But that’s not to say world hunger, community development or human services aren’t on the government’s list. Their political advising team says that six of these 68 Oreos aren’t necessary, so Ben “redistributed” them to areas of interest to the company’s mission of social responsibility.

    “We are the world’s only superpower,” Ben said, illustrating that our defense budget is bloated and disproportionate to our needs.

    With about half of the federal budget funneled into the Pentagon, Ben recommended campaign finance reform. Fair enough. As he sees it, the support the defense industry gives to candidates is directly responsible for the leaning tower of Oreos on the stage table.

    Their logic may be skewed, but there is no arguing that Ben and Jerry’s business plan will continue pushing them forward. Read more into their history and you’ll see that capitalism was the key to their early success. Listen to them speak and you’ll see that the “dual bottom line” is what they want to drive the company forward.


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