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"Ben & Jerry's Risky Branding Strategies That Work" — Alma Derricks, Marketing Expert

Alma Derricks (00:00): Hello, I'm Alma Derricks, Managing Partner of Rev, and this is my love letter to Ben & Jerry's.

Sam Thorogood (00:22): Welcome to Branding Love Letters, exploring the emotions brands evoke and the journeys they take us on. I'm Sam Thorogood, a graphic designer and your host. In each episode, I invite a guest to pick their favourite brand and unpack why it means so much to them. This podcast is a celebration of the branding that informs, impacts and inspires us. So, without further ado...

Alma Derricks (01:05): I first met Ben & Jerry's in high school. So this is a Cherry Garcia moment. It's all about Cherry Garcia. Um, it's ice cream perfection. Um, during summer break in high school, I'd eat a pint every morning and then swim all day. So I was living my best teenage life and Ben & Jerry's was right there with me. I wish I could still do that at that rate, but can't eat that much ice cream anymore, but, uh, that that's what metabolism does for you when you're in high school?

Sam Thorogood (01:38): Um, I don't know in the UK if we have Cherry Garcia, that flavour, could you describe it to me? I know it's a big one in the States, but I've never tasted it.

Alma Derricks (01:45): Yeah. You're missing out.

Sam Thorogood (01:48): I'm missing out

Alma Derricks (01:48): Yeah, you're, you're missing the everything flavour. It's probably essentially a, a, a vanilla base, but it comes out a little bit pink because inside there are chunks of whole cherries and little broken pieces of chocolate sort of swirled in the, in would again, probably vanilla at the bottom. And so it comes out kind of pinky purple and every little bite has vanilla cherry and chocolate all blended into one. It is divine.

Sam Thorogood (02:20): That sounds incredible. And you were, you were eating one of these a day?

Alma Derricks (02:25): Yeah, but I swam all day days and I was 16. So, you know, I think that that sort of takes care of it. So it was, uh, it was kind of easy. It was kind of all I ate, um, during the summer.

Sam Thorogood (02:36): Fantastic. So, so what was it, so if that kind of got you interested in, in, in them as a brand, what kind of kept you interested as you, as you journeyed with them?

Alma Derricks (02:45): Well, you know, I didn't know anything about their social mission at the time, you know, I was young and, but I did know instinctively, and it was interesting thinking about this. I knew instinctively, they were doing something unconventional, they were doing something different. You know, we'll talk about the literal look and feel of the actual cartons and things, but there was something about the way they stood out from all the other traditional brands. And there was something I knew that was, was, you know, again, just off the beaten path somehow. I also remember pretty early on, even before I understood the branding part of it, I was interested that they talked about fans and not consumers. And that was, I think the first time I'd ever heard that it's, it's something it's a little more common, um, to talk about today, but this is early on, you know, this is in the 80s and, and just the idea that they referred to me and saw me as, as some kind of member of, of their community versus just a transactional person with a wallet and, and it, and it's really played out in, in everything else they've done.

(03:56): Well, what's so interesting is that they, you know, they, they managed to keep an eye on the fact that ice cream is fun at the end of the day. The, if the product weren't good, if Cherry Garcia weren't delicious, none of this would matter, but it's interesting that they live on two levels. They live sort of superficially as just an ice cream brand that you may love. And then they have this deep, deep core of social activism that's tied in completely and completely integrated into everything that they do. I'm fascinated that, um, marketing and sort of their social activism group are just one and the same, they're closely synchronised inside the company. And it, it allows them to move pretty quickly because it's so embedded in their DNA, that that type of thinking is embedded in their DNA. It makes them very nimble when it comes to, to things that are happening in real time in the world. So it's, uh, it's fascinating that they, and, and I think for, for probably many of their, their customers for their fans, um, probably a significant portion, really just like the way the ice cream tastes. And then there's a group that really does see them and, you know, see them back and really appreciate them for this other piece that they use to really give voice to things using their platform. It's something they've made a core part of their business.

Sam Thorogood (05:21): When you think of Ben & Jerry's, what emotions come to mind?

Alma Derricks (05:25): You know, I mean, it yum, you know, first of all, like yummy, yummy ice cream. I mean, I think it starts, it starts there, but I, I just, again, I, I find it so interesting that they have such a soul. Um, I'm a big believer that brands are not just logo. Um, it's mistaken sometimes. And I think if you ask ten people, nine would say that brand equals the logo, and I'm a big believer that brand is, you know, down to your toes. Uh, you know, it, it, it goes all the way through it's everything that you do. It's the way you treat your employees. It's what you stand for. And so I, what I really, you know, late, I can't, I can't separate the feeling I have for them for appreciating their courage and really sticking to their guns on things that aren't always popular.

(06:14): They aren't always expedient, but they've decided that they wanna use their platform to make, to, to say things and to make a change. Um, it, all you have to do is look at Twitter to understand that that's not easy. Um, you know, every time they've, and this has been for years, and Twitter's recent in their 40 year history, but it's not easy to take a stand and we're particularly divisive right now. I think that's true around the world, not just in the States and, um, they get backlash for it. And yet, you know, they, they still continue to sell ice cream in places that probably largely culturally don't always agree with them. So that goes back to the first point of it's just great ice cream and people. I, I, I sort of love the idea that people come together anyway, you know, around ice cream. Um, that's kind of an interesting notion and seems to be part of their positivity, uh, underneath the hood.

Sam Thorogood (07:11): Take me back to the, the teenage Alma, you know, getting those Cherry Garcia cartons. What, what was it about the packaging? What was it about the colours, the, the, the logo that was so appealing to you?

Alma Derricks (07:22): Oh, yeah. I mean, it, the, the, the cartons, um, for, for listeners who haven't seen them are hand drawn, you know, they look like, um, like comic strips or cartoons. Um, so there's a hand drawn very different if you saw it sitting on the shelf with all the sort of formal names and brands and some brands that are hundreds of years old, um, you know, it, it just stands out because it looks like a little comic book sitting on the shelf in the freezer. Um, the, the logo itself is, is sort of a hand drawn, um, almost like graffiti looking Ben & Jerry's, um, there are there's blue sky, there's sun, they're happy cows. Um, it just looked different. I mean, it, it, and to this day, I still don't think anyone has really copied that if you think of other brands that have even gone more formal or more premium, um, more, you know, gold edges and script and things like that.

(08:20): Ben & Jerry's still has this very, um, sort of casual, fun, different, unique sort of going its own way kind of idea that I think really jives with the fact that they're from Vermont, you know, not necessarily the place that you think of, but I having lived in New England for a little while, I can attest that New Englanders are huge ice cream people. So it's interesting later in life to realise that and recognise that if you could survive in Vermont or in Massachusetts, or anywhere in New England, as an ice cream maker, you're competing with some of the best ice cream on the planet, I think. And, you know, if you can survive there and sort of meet the standards for people who you would think in a place that gets so cold, they, they wouldn't be such ice cream fans. They eat it year round, so they are connoisseurs of ice cream. And so like even that off beat-ness, like coming from Vermont, I'd never been to Vermont. I'd never, you know, been to that part of the country when I first discovered it, but there was something that said we're different. We're going our own way. You know, we kind of have our own, you have our own. Um, but we marched to the beat of a different drum. You could feel it, you could feel it in the, the look of the packaging and it's still true even after all these years.

Sam Thorogood (09:36): And is part of that difference, the fact that it's called Ben and Jerry? You know, there there's a, there's a story there there's two people there's instantly, it's, it's personal, isn't it, rather than just being a, a kind of corporate thing, it's, it's very personal.

Alma Derricks (09:49): For sure. And, and that it's first names, right? That it's first names and not last names, you could name it very formally, you know, using their last names, but it's just Ben and it's just Jerry and it's friendly that way. It's very, um, you know, it's very personalised in a way that I think was ahead of its time. Um, you know, I've watched as especially digital media. I think one of the things that we don't talk about a lot is that increasingly from websites to social, what's happened with branding is that the expectation is that brands are more human as we go. They have a voice, um, think about Twitter and what that means. Every company that may have had copywriting and may have had a tagline now has to interact in a medium that's very personalised. You know, you're talking as if you were a human being you're anthropomorphised as if you could walk into the room, as if Ben and Jerry, uh, the brand could walk into the room.

(10:48): And so I think most brands have been challenged to find that humanity and find that voice and figure out how they sound. You can, you can see it on Twitter with brands that get it and sound like somebody, it sound exactly like you think they would, if they could talk, if they could stand up and talk. And somehow when I look at it now, in retrospect with Ben & Jerry's, um, they found that 40 years ago when there was really no reason to, there was no urgency to it. There was no medium forcing you to do it. And yet they started with that very homespun, you know, almost like they're inviting you into their, their kitchen, you know, to have, have a bowl of ice cream. There is something very warm about that, that, that, again, made it stand out in, in its time. And I think still does today.

Sam Thorogood (11:35): Have they done anything that's really surprised you?

Alma Derricks (11:38): You know, it's interesting the, um, very recently, and I think this is what put them on my radar. Um, in the last few months, especially one of the things that Ben and Jerry did when they sold the company to Unilever in 2000, was they stipulated that the company would keep an independent board that would specifically be responsible for maintaining the mission, the core mission and brand of the company. And Unilever said, yes. Um, you know, Ben & Jerry's is a fabulous brand. And so in the course of that negotiation, they said, sure. And recently, just over the past year, the board of Ben & Jerry's sued Unilever, their parent company over, um, licensing the brand into parts of Israel that they took exception with. And, you know, the backlash was just unbelievable. Ben and Jerry are both Jewish themselves. And yet the company was, uh, accused of being antisemitic.

(12:41): Um, Ben and Jerry are no longer running the company, but it's certainly not in their, their DNA, um, to be antisemitic, but they, they have their own opinions as a company. And on principle about the relationship between, um, the Jewish state and Palestinians. And so this was something they went to bat for and they lost in court. Um, the first part of the battle, um, the court said, there's no definitive way you can say this will damage the Ben & Jerry's brand, even with the mission piece, but there's another suit that they're still pursuing, which again is just unprecedented for, you know, an internal company to sue their own parent. They've said, okay, if you know, they're, they're letting that rest, but they're saying, look, if we exist to defend this brand and to defend the mission of the company, then we need super deep clarification on what that means.

(13:39): You know, then we just may be at odds about what it means to defend that. And so I, in some ways it's not altogether surprising. I think it's surprising in some ways that post Ben and Jerry's ownership that they've continued to remain a steadfast and strong, which again is a testament to the, the strength of the brand it's, it's, it's outliving the founders' day-to-day presence, but it's, it's really been surprising to see them take this to the mat. And, and what I think is so interesting is that we're right in the midst of this huge conversation about ESG, about, you know, environmental, you know, sustainability governance and, and social issues and how companies should respond to that. And right in the midst of it, they're taking it as they have from the beginning, they're pushing it even further and taking it to court to really ask this, ask this question. And I think it's an important conversation to have, um, that surprised me like the, the lengths to which they would go would be one thing to, to protest. It would be one thing to send a stern letter saying, we, we strongly disagree with this. They went to the mat with their own parent company to really force the issue. And I think that's, um, kind of an amazing testament to, to their, their belief system and their core.

Sam Thorogood (14:59): And as a fan, you know, seeing them being so outspoken about so many different things. How, how does that affect your kind of relationship to, to the brand?

Alma Derricks (15:08): Yeah, for me, I, I tend to agree with them. So I think for me, it's not jarring. Um, I appreciate it. Um, I, you know, there's so few opportunities on some of these issues where you feel seen, and I think it's really, um, amazing that they, they take the time as a company to actually risk something. I think that's what it comes down to. There's so many performative versions of trying to show support and trying to demonstrate allyship, but somehow it, it rings a little thin unless you've really put something at risk and they've put revenue at risk, they've put sales at risk for things that they believe. And I think that gives me hope that, um, other companies can use the same platform to do the same thing. So it's not as jarring for me again, because I tend to, to, to, um, to agree with them.

(16:07): I tend to be in the same ballpark with them. Um, I understand that it makes other people angry and, you know, again, if you sort of browse through Twitter, there are people who just want them, it's like the shut up and dribble idea, like shut up and make ice cream. Just, I don't want, I don't wanna talk about this. And yet I'm of the opinion that you, you have to put these things out there. Part of what underlies a lot of the societal things that we're struggling with right now has everything to do with the fact that we don't talk about it, that we sweep things under the rug, that we don't have a common base of understanding to even approach an issue. So if you don't have the appropriate history, you can't even have an opinion, you know, and have a conversation that that connects.

(16:55): And so they've taken the stance that, you know, we have to talk about this, you know, it's interesting, I'll, I'll, um, I'll read an interesting part of one of their statements. It touched me that, you know, in the midst of the post George Floyd, um, statements and comments and, you know, statements of solidarity and things, when I looked back, Ben & Jerry's had made a statement about Black Lives Matter in 2016, not in 2020. And they went on the record in a very strong way. It caused backlash. It caused, you know, a lot of stir, but they closed this message, this long message about, you know, just why we've come to this conclusion, what we think is important. And they said, "we ask people to be open to understanding these issues and not to reflexively retreat to our current beliefs. Change happens when people are willing to listen and hear the struggles of their neighbour, putting aside preconceived notions and truly seeking to understand and grow will be working hard on that and ask you to as well, your friends at Ben & Jerry's."

(17:59): And so I think as a, whatever comes before that, whatever topic, whatever issue, that's kind of the, the heart of it and, and, and businesses have such an outsized influence to not step into that fray a bit and risk some things I think is, is to kind of silence such a huge, huge part of, of, you know, certainly American society, but world society. And I, I, I think that you can't divorce yourself from it. Um, you know, I think of it as something I, I can't divorce myself from, from a lot of these issues, they're personal to me. And so, um, I, I sort of, I, I appreciate the fact that they see an opportunity to not look away when there's something that they think is, is worth amplifying, and they have a huge microphone and, you know, the two founders continue to be very active and very vocal, even post Ben & Jerry's, you know, post running the company.

(18:59): And I think there's something very special about that at a time when, you know, we're we're, and, and I think I should say, I think finding a way to try and make that positive, not just screaming and yelling and being upset, but really basing it in a fundamental optimism about the tough conversations and the pain of that leading to something better on the other side. And I think that's something that also from a brand standpoint really does synchronise with what, you know, their product is, what ice cream is. It's, how can you ever be sad eating ice cream? You know, it makes you smile. So, um, I think trying to combine those ideas and, and set a tone that says there's something better on the other side, I think is admirable.

Sam Thorogood (19:49): Have there been any times when it's been harder to, to love the brand?

Alma Derricks (19:53): You know, again, not for me. I think it it's, I, I empathise with how hard it's been for them. Uh, you know, because of these stands, I personally, again, it's, it's not as difficult for me to see where they're coming from. So, you know, I've never really had a falling out with Ben & Jerry's, if that's what you're asking, I mean, there's really been nothing that, that shocked me in a way that, you know, was offensive or made it hard for me to continue to patronise them. I've never been conflicted about the things that they stand for, but I, I certainly understand the position they put themselves in. And so I empathise with that and sort of silent, you know, just sort of their rooting for them to, to not back down when they do have a position.

(20:37): And I think if they did ever take a stand on principle that I disagreed with, they've earned enough credibility as a brand with me that, you know, just like any other friendship, you can agree to disagree on some things, but I, I can, I find them to be so thoughtful about their activism and about their policy making that I, I sort of respect them generally for that. And could, if there were something that, you know, just absolutely rubbed me the wrong way. I doubt that would, would force me out of the tent. You know, it would just be one of those moments where, you know, between friends, you just have to say, we just don't see this one the same way, because the majority of their opinions I agree with. And so that's what keeps any good friendship alive, right?

Sam Thorogood (21:22): Yeah. That's fascinating. And it's so fascinating in this conversation because, you know, ultimately they're an ice cream company, but we're discussing far kind of bigger things. And, um, I guess part of what they've achieved is that they, they invite these kind of conversations in a way that maybe, you know, other ice cream companies just don't, and it's really a testament to what they are, um, striving for. And the fact that they're, they're a mission-centered business and that, you know, it's of course, like you said, it's about great ice cream, but there's all this other stuff as well, which is, which is actually really fundamental to who they are. Like, you can't have one without the other with Ben & Jerry's, seemingly.

Alma Derricks (22:02): It's true. And I, and I sort of imagine, I don't know this, and if Ben and or, and or Jerry were here, we could ask, I sort of imagine that they didn't need the company to become a multinational global force. I think had those opinions that they took originally in 78, kept them hemmed in for that reason, you know, kept them small and mom and pop, and, you know, one shop in Vermont. I, I sort of imagine that, that would've been just fine, as long as they were paying their bills and the business was right side up. I don't think they needed it to grow at all costs. Not at the cost of compromising what it is they were trying to say and had they remained a regional brand that would've been fine. I, I, I get the feeling that, that would've been fine. And yet they caught a wave in, in 78, um, that, that a lot that resonated with a lot of people. And they've done a lot of good things along the way. So I think that it's, they, it's the doing, doing well by doing good, um, in action there, it's really an example that those two things are possible. You can, you can hold both of those things in your mind and still build a profitable commercial business. Um, I, and I think that's a compelling thought we need more of this.

Sam Thorogood (23:30): As you look back, um, you know, your kind of story with this brand, how would you, how would you summarise it? How would you summarise your, your journey with, with Ben & Jerry's as a brand?

Alma Derricks (23:40): You know, I've gone from the shallowest of, of motives, you know, just again, I, you know, every time I say Cherry Garcia it just makes me happy, the shallowest of reasons, it was just good tasting, crazy good ice cream. And I, you know, I've sort of progressed. It's almost matured. My, my relationship with them has matured. I became an admirer from a, a, a social and mission-driven side that, that side of them became something I continued to fall deeper in love with. And then as a branding professional and as a marketer, you know, to really appreciate, as I learned more and became more sophisticated to really understand how, how precious and unique what they've built is, you know, so I think it's one of those relationships that started with a crush, like a really simple crush. And over lots of years, it's just grown into a really deep admiration for what it is that they've they've built and what they continue to build and what they stand for. Um, it's, it's more needed than ever. So it's not even just a nice to have. It's not just that they're, they're doing good things and isn't that cute. It it's who knew that we would need it this much, um, 40 years later, and would need that messaging 40 years later?

Sam Thorogood (25:06): Alma, um, let the listeners know where people can connect with what you're doing.

Alma Derricks (25:11): Absolutely. Um, you can learn more about my brand entrepreneurship consultancy. It's called Rev at So WWW dot R E V, like victor, dot LA and on LinkedIn and on Twitter I'm just very simply Alma Derricks, A L M A D E R R I C K S.

Sam Thorogood (25:36): Fantastic. So finally, um, I'd love for you just to, to read out the, the love letter that you've written to Ben, and Jerry's.

Alma Derricks (25:45): Sure I kind of kept it short and sweet. Um, you've heard, a lot of my, all, all of my gushing so far, but I kept it sweet, short and sweet. Dear Ben & Jerry's, thank you for your vision, your voice, your courage, and your soul. And for Cherry Garcia. After 40 years, you're still young at heart, making us think and making the world a much sweeter place. XOXOXO, Alma Derricks.

Sam Thorogood (26:16): Well, Alma, thank you very much for letting us hear your branding love letter.

Alma Derricks (26:21): Thank you so much for asking me.

Sam Thorogood (26:26): You've been listening to Branding Love Letters and I've been Sam Thorogood. I'm on a mission: equip pioneers like you to bring others onto your journey. Come and find out more Thanks for listening. Oh, and big thanks to Thomas Thorogood for the music. Take it away, Tommy boy.

Sam Thorogood | Pilgrimage Design