Ben & Jerry’s: Peace, love and ice cream

Ben & Jerry’s global social mission officer Dave Rapaport talks to Anna Burzlaff, head of cultural insights and strategy agency Truth, about the brand’s approach to activism, and what it takes to make credible change in the world today

In response to the public outcry against racial inequality, sparked by the killing of George Floyd in May of this year, countless brands rushed to compose messages of support for the Black Lives Matter movement. While many acted in good faith, much of the messaging was regarded as at best misguided, and at worst woefully ignorant (here’s looking at you Popeyes Chicken). Ben & Jerry’s 704-word text, on the other hand, was lauded as an example of how to do it right.

Detailed and empowering, the post, titled ‘Silence Is NOT An Option’, linked Floyd and other recent victims of fatal police violence, such as Breonna Taylor, with historic figures like Martin Luther King Jr. It called out the “inhumane police brutality that is perpetuated by a culture of white supremacy”. It highlighted how this moment in time was a consequence of “the toxic seeds planted on the shores of our country in Jamestown in 1619, when the first enslaved men and women arrived on this continent”. It supported the creation of “a national task force that would draft bipartisan legislation aimed at ending racial violence and increasing police accountability”.

A large part of its resonance lay not just in the power of its vision, but in Ben & Jerry’s longstanding commitment to racial equity. Whether in sustainability, asylum rights or economic justice, as a brand, Ben & Jerry’s seems to have done what many regard as near impossible: it’s succeeded in promoting a belief in ‘Peace, Love and Ice Cream’ over the past 40 years both profitably and, importantly, authentically.

Dave Rapaport is Ben & Jerry’s Global Social Mission Officer. I spoke with him about the ways in which Ben & Jerry’s has managed to communicate so credibly in this space, as well as the role of ‘cause marketing’ and purpose-driven brands more broadly.

Anna Burzlaff: Tell me a little bit about your role at Ben & Jerry’s. What does a global social mission officer do? How does this tie into the Ben & Jerry’s brand?
Dave Rapaport: Ben & Jerry’s is guided by a three-part mission, which includes the social mission, the economic mission and the product mission. I think it’s still fairly unique in terms of the way in which these things are always seen as intertwined and acknowledged together to be responsible for our success. So in that sense, social mission is a part of the company and realistically, a part of most people’s work. I lead the social mission team, which includes folks who work full time on driving the values that underlie our social mission, which really stem from the values of our co-founders [Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield]. We’ve begun to talk about this in terms of three distinct areas: human rights and dignity, social and economic justice, and environmental protection, restoration and regeneration.

And so our team does that in two different ways. We have folks that are focused on how we advance those values through the operation of our business and value chain. So that’s the traditional sustainability function, and that focuses on greenhouse gas emissions and plastic at the moment. We have a very robust set of values that supports programmes, the largest of which, of course, is our main ingredient, dairy. We are also doing work to advance racial equity within our business.

And then we have a team of activism managers in many markets around the world where we advance our values through fan-facing activism in partnership with NGOs. In Europe, we’re focused on refugee and asylum rights. Here in the US it’s racial equity and, within that in the last few years, we’ve been focusing on criminal justice reform, and we work on climate change as well. We continue to work on things like LGBTQ+ rights and a few other things that we’ve been engaged with historically in different parts of the world.

AB: You mentioned three core areas: human rights, social and economic justice, and environmental protection, restoration and regeneration. What’s the process involved in deciding what to support and how to go about supporting it?
DR: We’ve got quite a heritage in things that we work on, there’s a lot of continuity. We draw from the work that’s been done over the years and for us that provides a fairly defined playing field, although it’s still quite broad. I think with regard to the internal areas where we’re trying to have a direct impact on our business a lot of that is driven by a sense of materiality. But we also talk about the idea of linked prosperity as a business model.

So we ensure that we’re paying living wages to all of our employees and people in our factories. Our values and sourcing programmes are focused in part on the incomes for farmers. Here in the US there is a lot of migrant labour. We are the first dairy company to participate in something called Milk With Dignity, which means we provide a premium to farmers, which funds their compliance with a set of worker driven standards for labour practices, including wages and days off and housing conditions and a whole host of things.

In terms of the external work on activism, we’re led by our NGO partners. We believe that in order to have credibility with them, as well as to have an effect on really driving the change that we seek, you have to have a longevity of focus and continuity. It’s recognising that these are long-term efforts. Those efforts are evolving as conditions evolve. A lot of our work is in understanding the landscape so we can choose the right partners. But once we engage with them, we tend to stick with them over a significant period of time. What we’re really doing is bringing the tools that we have in the business to the table in service of their efforts.

AB: I think I read somewhere that you once spent several days in the Nevada desert being chased by security forces in helicopters after you tried to stop a nuclear weapons test explosion.
DR: I worked for many years as an activist, and a dozen or 13 of those with Greenpeace back in the 80s and 90s. And so I, yeah….

AB: How important is that credibility to everything Ben & Jerry’s does? The fact that the brand’s social mission is being led by someone who spent 12 or 13 years at Greenpeace, the fact that you have heritage and longevity in human rights, social justice, the environment
DR: There’s no doubt that it’s helpful. I’m actually pretty recent to Ben & Jerry’s, just about three years in, but the person on my team who leads our activism work was also with Greenpeace for a number of years, Chris Miller. And he’s been at Ben & Jerry’s for a lot longer than I have. NGOs in general are reluctant to trust corporations, which is quite appropriate. So it just takes time in establishing relationships and improving and earning trust through the work that we do at Ben & Jerry’s. I don’t expect anybody to treat Ben & Jerry’s differently because of my background. They need to really see what we do on a day-to-day basis to decide whether or not they can trust us.

AB: In a previous interview you said you think that only a minority of Ben & Jerry’s fans are aware of its social mission. Why do you think that is?
DR: Well, I think probably a number of things. Most folks buy ice cream because they want to enjoy the euphoria of the experience of eating ice cream. And so, there’s quite a lot of fans of Ben & Jerry’s for whom that’s their primary mode of engagement – eating. We’ve got a lot of components to our branding and a lot of different messages: a lot of those are just about fun and ice cream. However, I think the awareness of our social mission is growing over time, we have more tools to use such as social media, and we’re able to do more targeted messaging.

There’s a lot of folks who just don’t engage with social activism in general. And so part of what we’re trying to do is bring more people into it. We’re increasingly engaging our fans in specific ways around particular efforts that we’re involved with.

AB: At the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, Ben & Jerry’s wheeled in a giant papier-mâché statue of an ice-cream cone with a melting, globe-patterned scoop. It’s very easy to move into a worthy space when we talk about social mission, but the tone of Ben & Jerry’s is different.
DR: Oh, yeah. We are like any brand who is trying to engage within the framework of the look and feel of the company, and trying to relate to our fans in the way that they know us and understand us, and what they’ve come to expect from us. There is a magic that ice cream has, right? And we try to use that. One of our secret powers is to use ice cream and fun in a way that engages people. It’s a heck of a lot easier to talk to people about important stuff when you’re scooping ice cream.

AB: You talked a little bit about how people might not necessarily be in the head space or want to deal with, or confront some of these social issues. Do you think the landscape is changing? Do you find that audiences are becoming more attuned and expectant when it comes to brands having a point of view on these topics?
DR: Oh, absolutely. And I think that’s been happening for a long time. I think we’ve seen it really accelerate during Covid-19. My sense is that the past year has been a time in which people have been forced to think more clearly about what’s important to them. We’re seeing a lot of research, which is suggesting that more and more people are expecting the brands they engage with to be reflective of their values. They want to do business with folks who are advancing things that matter to them.

AB: Do you worry it’s becoming a trend? Or do you worry that other brands are treating it as a trend?
DR: To the extent that there’s a trend of people putting their values into action and caring more about what matters, that is certainly not a concern.

One of the other things that I think is happening in society is that increasingly people are very attuned to whether or not businesses are sincere, genuine or authentic in their efforts. I think a company that wants to try to use the idea of purpose exploitatively, without being authentic is going to receive some hard knocks. You can see that with the Pepsi ad with Kendall Jenner, for example.

AB: Are there certain things that you’ve done as a global social mission officer that you feel particularly proud about?
DR: I view my work as being about facilitating the work of the amazing team that we have and collaborating with folks across the company. I feel very proud about the great work that all of them have done over the past year, based on many years of work in the movement for Black lives and coming out to support Black Lives Matter six years ago. There has been a lot of work in the trenches with our NGO partners, as well as company statements that have been perceived some times as quite controversial. All of that put us in a position to be able to make what many regarded as one of the definitive corporate statements after the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others.

It’s been gratifying to be part of the work that has helped set a standard in the corporate sector that is meaningful, and points the direction to what it means to be anti-racist and dismantling white supremacy. We’ve been very proud to be part of that, but it’s really more a sense of higher obligation and responsibility to ensure that this movement doesn’t disappear without true progress in that direction. We’re able to finally overcome this, this history of racism in the US and, in its own way, in different parts of the world.

Images courtesy of Ben & Jerry’s

I had one more thought. I think that one of the keys to what has enabled Ben & Jerry’s to do what we do is that we’re talking about values and a sense of purpose that comes from your people – the individuals who founded the company. And as each of us has joined the company, we brought our pieces to it. It’s a living, breathing thing, this sense of purpose that continues to evolve in all of us, but it’s founded in wanting to make real change in the world, in service of more progressive values. That’s not something you can duplicate. Progress has to be real about contributing something real and making real change in the world. It’s not bound to be very successful if it’s not based on that. It has to be about that rather than about brand building. That’s not something that many understand or have been willing to think about deeply enough to duplicate.

AB: To follow up briefly on your point, in that instance, if it’s not baked into your DNA, is it better to say nothing?
DR: Well, it’s best to be authentic. Those of us with privilege are able to choose where we work. [We want to] work for employers who give us the opportunity for our work to be an expression of our values and to help us advance who we want to be in the world. And so wherever there is that opportunity, any company is wise to understand that this is now an essential element of being a successful business. So it’s not about whether you should say something or not, it’s about whether you’re going to enable genuine purpose or not. And those that don’t are going to have more limited success in the future.

This piece was originally published in Truth – a magazine set up by cultural insights and strategy agency Truth. Truth is dedicated to understanding the social norms, values, and practices of consumers locally and globally. The first issue of Truth’s magazine, The Now Normal, explores the ways in which Covid-19 has impacted our behaviours and how it might shape the future; truthisglobal.com

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