Ben & Jerry’s gets a chilly reception

Ben & Jerry’s ice cream took the US by storm where its ‘no marketing’ strategy worked but the UK has so far been less than enthusiastic about it. So more conventional advertising may be on the cards. By Stephanie Bentley

It sounds like an economic miracle. Two hippies build a multi-million dollar ice cream business from scratch, having turned their backs on advertising, and embrace a radically different business philosophy: “caring capitalism”.

Ben & Jerry’s ice cream caused a sensation in the US with its cunningly invisible marketing strategy. There was no marketing strategy. Just a genuine, truthful image embodied by its amateurish and rather intriguing founders, childhood friends Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield.

The Americans loved the company’s playful attitude, with ice cream flavour names such as Cherry Garcia, Wavy Gravy and Chunky Monkey, and they loved its ethos – 7.5 per cent of the company’s profits go to charity, suppliers are picked from areas of social need.

And of course they loved the “all natural” product. As one radio presenter said: “If Häagen-Dazs is the ice cream you eat after sex, Ben & Jerry’s is the ice cream you eat instead of sex.”

But the quirky hippies from over there have failed to make an impact over here. The luxury ice-cream makers made a disappointing entry into the British market in 1994, splitting with their distributor Loseleys after only five months. Observers claimed sales could have been higher if the brand had been more widely available.

Trailing five years behind Grand Met’s Häagen-Dazs, which already had a high-profile advertising strategy in place, Ben & Jerry’s “word of mouth” publicity in an increasingly crowded market has failed to give the brand a foothold in the UK. Already sales have declined by 33 per cent year on year (Nielsen MAT, December 23 1995).

Now the company is looking at the possibility of an-above-the-line budget to raise its profile and boost declining sales.

A Ben & Jerry’s spokesman says: “There are currently no plans to advertise. But we are an ideas-driven company. We want to see what ideas are around. We are always looking to build further awareness.”

One insider says: “The company is asking the question: if we use above-the-line advertising, how would it benefit our brand?

“It could simply be to help it with distribution. If retailers took it more seriously, they might stock the product.”

Häagen-Dazs – which claims to have created the premium ice cream market single-handedly – is the clear brand leader in the sector, outselling its nearest competitor Heinz’ Weight-Watchers by nearly three to one.

Marketing manager Kerry Pettitt says: “We have always sought to give the consumer what they want and to remain innovative in both our product and our marketing.”

The company, which plans to expand its presence in the handheld ice cream sector, has a 21 per cent share of the value market compared with Ben & Jerry’s six per cent. (Nielsen MAT, December 23 1995), although Ben & Jerry’s claims a 16 per cent share of the super premium market.

But it is the influx of strong own-label products that could ultimately lick both Ben & Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs.

Sub-brands such as Sainsbury’s Indulgence and Tesco’s Luxury Dairy are currently biting the biggest chunk out of branded profits. Tesco’s range includes such decadent flavours as White Chocolate Fluffy Mallow, Cappuccino Cafe and Blueberry Cheesecake, but are over 1 less per 500ml tub.

Claire Nunneley, board account director for Häagen-Dazs at its advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty, says: “The supermarkets have very strong own-label products. They already have Häagen-Dazs setting the pace and they don’t need another brand. Freezers obviously have limited space. We would probably see own-label as our biggest rival now.”

So how can Ben & Jerry’s better communicate its point of difference, which gave it such popular appeal in the US? For the past 18 months the Body Shop, a very different organisation but with the same alternative view of how a modern business can operate, has used advertising agency St Luke’s as its “global communications consultant”, although like Ben & Jerry’s it has never run a traditional above-the-line campaign.

Clare Nash, Body Shop account director, says: “One of the biggest balancing acts it faces is explaining to its staff and customers how the choice of a Body Shop product is much more than just buying any old shampoo.

“The temptation is to talk quite separately about all the good things the Body Shop does and the bottles it sells in its shops. You have to make the link between the product and the ethos.”

One of the Body Shops’s main advantages in communicating its philosophy is, of course, its huge network of shops, with their trained staff, in-store leaflets and posters.

Ben and Jerry’s does not yet have this platform in the UK, unlike its rival Häagen Dazs, although in the US its chief executive Robert Holland has announced a commitment to expand the company’s “scoop shops” from about 125 to as many as 500. The company is planning to increase the number of “scoop carts” in the UK, currently found in just a handful of London stations.

Holland, former chief executive of a plastics firm, was appointed last year to steer the company through a difficult growing period after it recorded its first losses. He is seen as combining a socially-conscious philosophy with a focused corporate strategy.

But would hiring an ad agency be a betrayal of Ben & Jerry’s “tree-hugging” values? The company has, like the Body Shop, suffered a backlash from critics eager to denounce its ethics as a deeply cynical marketing ploy.

A company spokesman says: “Listening to other people’s ideas has no relevance to the ethos of the company. Ultimately, the company has to be judged on what action it decides to take.”

In the past, Ben & Jerry’s has relied on PR to sell itself. It has run major sampling campaigns to convince retailers of the latent demand for its products and has held a contest inviting the British to invent their own ice-cream flavour.

The company says Ben & Jerry’s message is inextricably linked to the quality of its ice cream, but its heavy use of sampling in the UK suggests the deliciousness of its product is the simple driving force behind marketing strategy.

A spokesman says: “The philosophy of the company is only part of it. One hundred per cent of the buying public is not aware of it. People do not necessarily buy the ice cream for the message.”

He adds that Ben & Jerry’s gives huge amounts of ice cream away to charity, but admits most people are probably unaware of this. “We don’t have to squeeze every bit of publicity out of everything we do,” he says.

Observers say Ben & Jerry’s could possibly adopt a loyalty scheme, expanding its database of fans with a more active Ben and Jerry’s “club”. But whatever approach it chooses for this quirky brand – which would make such a mouth-watering advertising brief – it must raise its profile and its distribution if it is ever to be a serious player.

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