The following is a short response to an article which appeared in Marketing magazine UK this week entitled 'Why does Ben & Jerry's have such loyal customers?'.
In the article, essentially a promo piece for his book 'Ice Cream Social: The Struggle for the Soul of Ben & Jerry's', the author Brad Edmondson asserts that the people who buy Ben & Jerry’s ice cream are intensely devoted to the brand and this single factor explains the success of the company.
Among some of Edmondson's other claims is one that states that the company’s liberal political stance (vocalising support for things like same-sex marriage and the occupy movement) make lots of people angry, particularly conservatives.
However this is ok because the company doesn’t sell ice cream to conservatives.
Their customers are only affluent, middle-aged, and urban liberals, apparently.
And intensely devoted.
And what's more, when I queried this point to the author on Twitter, pointing out to him that Ben and Jerry's sales patterns will in all likelihood conform to the same patterns as any other fmcg type brand - ie the vast majority of it's sales over a year will come from people who buy the product only once or twice in that period - he responded with the following:
'B&J's success comes from connecting to a passionate segment. "The vast majority" is not their concern.'
The article is, as you will have gathered by now, utter delusional nonsense if viewed as any sort of real-life marketing case in point.
One suspects the entire book is much more of the same. Probably more intensely devotional.
But, as a piece of brand marketing collateral a bit of myth-building is never a bad thing, so fair play on that one.
What interests me more is 'why' this sort of myth building is important to Ben and Jerry's, and who, exactly, is the audience for the myth.
The first clue is when considering the the B&J story within the frame of the classic counter-culture to sell-out journey.
Very short version.
In 1978 Ben and Jerry, a couple of slightly out of date diet-hippies have an ahead-of-their-time-idea and set up an 'artisanal' ice cream shop in Vermont.
The Ice cream parlour gets popular locally, in no short measure due to the quirky distinctiveness of our two protagonists, a quirky distinctive product and the brand they had begun to build.
Before you know it they are beginning to establish a distribution network among grocery stores and supermarkets.
This draws the attention of media and marketing commentators, some national media coverage hails their product as the best of it's kind in the country, which leads to more distribution and more rapid growth.
However now, our heroes are faced with a sell-out conundrum.
Quite quickly this thing has turned into a pretty viable big-bucks business drawing lots of interest from 'the man' in various guises, and the lure of national distribution and even bigger profits.
Because, as the chaps are now starting to realise, this is the engine of capitalism.
And they are bang in the middle of it.
Every new anti-establishment approach business or thing that starts off as some sort of alternative to the mainstream - more artisanal, authentic or rebellious - eventually gets acquired or incorporated by the establishment and resold back - often completely intact - to the mass market looking for things to consume that signal their alternative status to others.
[One way of describing this I've heard is that act of attempting to run counter to the culture is what creates the next wave of culture that the next wave of counter-culture will want to counter.
That other counter-culture to captain of industry, Steve Jobs got over this very quickly. Despite his hippie roots Jobs had no problem at all accepting the natural laws of capitalism]
Indeed, the man does come calling, chequebook in hand, and B&J ink a deal in 1986 for distribution by Dreyers (a Nestle company), within two years they have also a national chain of 'scoop shops' and are picking up Businessmen of Year accolades from none other than that other old counter-culture hippy Ronald Reagan.
Shortly before signing with Dreyers, a swift hippy realignment is established, as the company sets up a foundation and directs a portion of pre-tax profits each year into grants which 'grass-roots' community projects can apply for.
In the 90's however the tide has turned, B&Js is in decline and not profitable for a period.
Seems that the hippy ethical business spurt was a bit of a blip. Something has to change.
It seems that in the cold light of day, far from being the main driver of growth, the company’s social mission was a luxury it could no longer afford.
Despite this in the the mid-90's B&J's is still a $200 million dollar business, but reality bites, the firm is unprofitable so a new shareholder value and growth specialist CEO is appointed, and he engineers the sale to Unilever.
The counter-culture to corporate sell-out cycle is complete.
And the company is now faced with sort of collective cognitive dissonance.
This little hippy company that set out it's stall against the mainstream has got bigger and bigger and become the mainstream. Not only that, it's new master is Unilever.
Unilever, the world's third-largest consumer goods company, subject to the ire of Greenpeace on the issues of deforestation and unsustainable palm oil while also allegedly responsible for up to 4% of global green house gas emissions.
Like Joe Strummer said in Death or Glory (in belated acceptance of his own dissonance, The Clash having being accused of sell-out on the day they signed with CBS/Sony)-
'I believe in this, and it's been tested by research...he who f*cks nuns, will later join the church'.
With Unilever as your new boss, what's a hippy to do?
Let's briefly return to Edmondson's article again.
The author skirts close to the truth when he asks...
'Why does Unilever, the second-largest food company in the world, allow one of its wholly owned subsidiaries to embrace radical street protestors and take other positions that it knows will piss off millions of potential buyers of Unilever products?'
The simple answer is that Unilever knows very well that the hundreds of millions of buyers of Unilever brands have no idea that they are buying Unilever brands, are not even vaguely interested in whether they are Unilever brands or not, and the embracing of radical street protests or whatever of Ben and Jerry's is of little or no interest to the vast majority of the buyers of that particular brand.
Because Unilever knows that the so-called counter-culture is actually the engine of capitalism.
For Unilever to continually find new companies to buy, and therefore continue to oil the machine, these companies have to come from somewhere.
He goes on...
'Again, it goes back to the independent board. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield did not want to sell their company in 2000. They agreed to do it only after Unilever signed a contract that created the board, which exists in perpetuity.'
Presumably the three hundred million dollars was also a factor.
'In addition to protecting product quality, this board also has the legal power to ensure that the company’s investment in edgy political causes continues, and that their spending on social mission activities grows with Ben & Jerry’s sales.'
Well, we all love to believe a good story.
Indeed, the stories we believe the most are the ones we tell ourselves.
For Ben and Jerry's idealist hippy roots the dream is never over.
The story of the global brand that grew by staying true to it's values, never really sold-out and connected emotionally to it's intensely devoted loyal fans.
This makes for a great feelgood story inside the company to resolve the INEVITABLE inner conflict that comes with any sell-out.
And it's fantastic that Ben and Jerry's do these things for their local community, at a grass-roots level. I'm sure we all applaud.
But none of these things have anything to do with why they are one of the most recognisable brands in the supermarket.
But the 'devoted loyalty' story should not be be presented or viewed as some sort of marketing how-to, and the slavish retweeting and sharing but the kum-bya brigade does not lend any credibility to the idea whatsoever.
For a brand that has 40% of the US luxury ice cream market to be sustained by the small group of devoted ultra loyal superfans would mean that these fans would likely to be somewhat on the overweight side given the amount of product they would need to consume.
This is not, in any way, how brands get built.
The real story of the success of Ben and Jerry's is somewhat more straightforward and explainable by universal laws of marketing.
Ben and Jerrys, over time has become a highly distinctive brand, easily noticed and remembered, with great distribution that's easy to buy for lots of different types of people.
Yes, they have some very loyal buyers.
But not proportionately any more than any other brand. It's the same for everyone.
And in the ice cream category heavy buyers will be literally heavy buyers as the probably consume an equal amount of Haagen-Daaz too.
Edmondson's story might make an entertaining book, but at its root it's fiction.
Most of Ben and Jerry's customers only buy the brand very infrequently. But there are millions of these buyers.
This is how they got big.
And for the vast majority of these customers Ben and Jerry's social mission is of no interest whatsoever and has no impact whatsoever on their purchasing behaviour.
I'll leave you with Edmondson's sign-off line.
If I said this in the boardroom of any of my clients I would not be in a position to complain if they chucked me straight out the window.
. 'It’s much harder to run a mission-driven company than it is to run one that is simply devoted to making a profit.'