Vermont’s brand is clean, natural and progressive.
When it comes to food products, Ben & Jerry’s was the iconic ignition, establishing that brand nationwide.
Founders, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, made social responsibility a guiding principle of the company, so long as it remained in private ownership.
Once the company grew to a certain size and became publicly owned, that mission was maintained. This was largely due to the weight of respect carried by the founders’ own individual personalities; but shareholders held ultimate sway, so it was probably inevitable that the shining star of the Vermont brand would be sold to a much bigger player.
That player was Unilever, and continuance of some of B&J’s social responsibility mission was a contractual obligation attached to the sale.
We don’t know at what point that breadcrumb trail back to the brand’s progressive origins will disappear, but apparently it still has the power to undermine Unilever’s corporate agenda.
Business Week reports that Ben & Jerry brand’s advocacy for GMO labelling is in direct opposition to the parent company’s own position on the issue.
Fully aware that, when they acquired the Ben & Jerry’s label, its value for Unilever lay in part in the Vermont brand associated with that name and all it implies, the multinational is now faced with a quandry.
Violating the principles of that brand by pulling the choke-chain on Ben &Jerry’s support for GMO labelling, would come at a cost to Unilever, both in bad PR and in dollars and cents.
So, for now at least, Unilever has chosen to look away while B&J’s does its own thing; but, as food industry critic Marion Nestle points out, that too may come at a cost:
If Unilever tries to play both sides of the issue, it may wind up hurting itself and Ben & Jerry’s. “In the short run, they might get away with ignoring what B&J is doing, but sooner or later it will catch up with them,” Unilever’s stance makes it “look stupid,” Nestle says, and it could open up the company to boycotts from consumer activists angry about its hypocrisy.
Could this ultimately provide the opportunity that some (including Ben Cohen himself) have reportedly wished for, to take Ben & Jerry’s back into private ownership?
‘Just something to ponder, spoon in hand, in the last lazy days of summer.