How Ben & Jerry’s and Levi’s put activism at the heart of their brands

Ben & Jerry’s and Levi’s both believe promoting social causes is crucial to the future of their brands, but in order for it to work activity has to be closely aligned with a brand’s core values.

2019 looks set to be the year that brands are more committed to social change than ever before, and two brands committed to that mission are Ben & Jerry’s and Levi’s.

But in order to make an impact and be taken seriously by consumers, any act has to be in line with a brand’s wider values and filter through to every aspect of the company.

“It’s about being a whole, collective organisation; that is how we can work on real issues because we have people in the organisation who believe in this stuff,” says Ed Shepherd, Ben & Jerry’s head of activism, speaking to Marketing Week at media company TCO London’s ‘Beyond Brand Purpose’ event (22 January). He refers to co-founder Ben Cohen’s mantra ‘We’re a company with a set of values, we’re not a brand’.

Already this year, Gillette’s advert tackling toxic masculinity has resulted in a media storm causing many to ask whether brands actually have a right to be activists.

“It can’t be just about narrative change or your big communications ad for the year, it has to be how you address systemic changes,” adds Shepherd.

While he commends Gillette for speaking out about toxic masculinity he is cautious to offer too much praise until the brand shows it goes deeper than this one campaign.

He explains: “We want to feel it’s a true long-term issue for Gillette and if it is that’s great, they can work alongside people in the movement to make it stronger and deepen the impact [of that movement]. As companies we have a hugely disproportionate impact on society and therefore we should be using that to create social change.”

When companies try to create social impact they really need to talk to people who are the experts.

Ed Shepherd, Ben & Jerry’s

Ben & Jerry’s has a three-part mission statement. Firstly, it has a product mission which is all about creating innovative ice cream; secondly an economic mission which refers to growing as a company; and finally a social mission which is about the role the company plays in society.

Shepherd explains: “It is really a company-wide statement and comes into everything we do… All employees have targets across all three of the missions [regardless of whether] you are in R&D, in marketing, in social listening. It really goes far beyond being a brand and being an idea that you are a company that stands for something.”

Rhodri Evans, Levi’s European brand engagement manager, who was also speaking to Marketing Week at the ‘Beyond Brand Purpose’ event, agrees that causes need to extend beyond one narrative campaign, saying it’s crucial to align activism with brand purpose.

He explains: “[At Levi’s] we don’t see it as activism it’s about aligning to our values. From day one we’ve had a set of well-defined and strong values as a business so everything we do is about integrity, originality, authenticity, and also bravery.”

While this mantra may sound like it’s “lifted from a corporate page on a website”, he says if a business actively champions its values then they should be embedded in the company and filter through to everything it does.

Evans’ role is two-pronged: aligning brands to cultural discourse and authentically communicating brand value. He doesn’t call Levi’s an activist brand necessarily, instead saying it all comes down to the brand’s purpose.

While brand activism and brand purpose are closely aligned, a brand’s purpose is commonly seen as its reason for being and why people might believe in it, whereas brand activism is about seeking to have an impact on a problem – which works best when it is closely aligned with a brand’s purpose.

In 2017, Levi’s, which has a long-standing relationship with music, launched a global project to help young people at a local level break into music through mentorships and music spaces, for example.

While Ben & Jerry’s has a long history of campaigning on everything from climate change to marriage equality, and this year is focusing on migrant rights working with the Lift the Ban Coalition to campaign to allow asylum seekers to be able to work while waiting for their claims.

READ MORE: Ben & Jerry’s: Why standing for a cause can build stronger customer bonds

Advice to other brands

Both Ben & Jerry’s and Levi’s argue their brand purpose links back to social good but they urge other brands to try being more activist.

Shepherd says: “There’s a thing our old CEO used to say, ‘do 10 things and talk about three of them’ and I think that actually getting out there and doing activities alongside other things you are talking about [is important].”

He adds that working with NGOs and other organisations is crucial: “You need to be outward looking when planning your campaigning. The idea of movement building is critical for us: what we try to do is to align our goals with the goals of a wider movement.

“When companies try to create social impact they really need to talk to people who are the experts. We’re ice cream guys and don’t know the challenges that people face when fleeing persecution but we work with Refugee Action who know a lot about that.”

Shepherd also says critical to getting people on board is encouraging key stakeholder’s on field trips to see the direct impact of campaigns. He says: “We like to take our employees and the people that we work with on [what are] essentially immersive field trips so they can learn more about the key organisations that we work with are doing.”

Levi’s Evans adds that brands should be wary about over-promising and sometimes it’s best to acknowledge your limitations. He explains: “There is always more you can do but it’s best to be open and honest by saying ‘we’re not fixing everything and we’re not there but we’re trying’.”