Ben & Jerry's founders, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield re-emerge in a campaign aimed to shift federal priorities

July 11th, 2006

Cohen, Greenfield re-emerge for Ben & Jerry's new campaign
By Ross Sneyd —

MONTPELIER, Vt. –Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc. is returning to its social activist roots, attracting its aging hippie founders back to the company for the first time in years, as it lobbies to shift federal spending from nuclear missiles to children's programs.

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield are leading the company's “American Pie” campaign, designed to persuade consumers to demand that the federal government shift its spending priorities. Their goal is to shift $13 billion that now pays to maintain thousands of nuclear bombs into pediatric health insurance, schools or other programs for kids.

“Do you really need 10,000 nuclear bombs?” Greenfield asked in a telephone interview from Washington, where he and Cohen kicked off the campaign Tuesday. “How many nuclear bombs are you going to send anywhere? Five? Ten?”

Greenfield and Cohen gained fame as they parlayed their business, founded after they took correspondence courses on making ice cream, into a multi-million-dollar publicly traded company that became the subject of a bidding war by competing companies interested in taking it over.

Dutch conglomerate Unilever won that war in 2000 and Cohen and Greenfield have largely stayed away ever since, disillusioned that the company was not pursuing the mission of corporate social responsibility that they advocated.

That's changing this week with the launch of “American Pie,” just the kind of social activism mixed with marketing and a touch of whimsy that Cohen and Greenfield practically invented.

The company has created a new ice cream flavor — American Pie made with apple pie ice cream with apples and pie crust pieces. Lids from pints of ice cream will carry information about the campaign and ways to get involved. A new section of Ben & Jerry's Web site is dedicated to the initiative. And Cohen and Greenfield have set out on a multi-city tour to carry the message.

“I think that business is the most powerful force in the country,” Cohen said. “When business starts using its voice for the benefit of the country as a whole, not just in its narrow self interest, it can really be the force that can make the changes that need to be made.”

That's long been the view of Cohen and Greenfield, but they believed it became little more than a marketing ploy after Unilever took over six years ago. So they let the company go its own way, albeit with their names and pictures still on all the packaging.

Then CEO Walt Freese joined Ben & Jerry's about a year-and-a-half ago. He called the founders and began a series of meetings with them. He laid out his ideas for some new forms of social activism, steps that Ben & Jerry's had maintained over the years but not as aggressively as it once had.

Eventually, Freese suggested the campaign that's become American Pie and Cohen and Greenfield were back in the fold.

“As long as the company is going to do meaningful actions that have a strong social benefit, I'm happy to support it and help,” Cohen said.

Freese said Ben & Jerry's under Unilever has always been committed to the three-part mission established under Cohen and Greenfield, which commits to high-quality products, profits, and social responsibility. But it lost its edge in the years after Unilever took over, he said.

“There was always the commitment on the part of Ben & Jerry's and Unilever, post-acquisition, to honor the social mission and to do things that are true to the social mission,” Freese said in an interview. “What got lost over time, initially, was that Ben and Jerry had not just honored the social mission, they had committed themselves to being leaders, had committed themselves to being activists. Ben & Jerry's was less courageous for a period of time, post-acquisition.”

Now, that mission is back, enough to cause some stress at Unilever corporate headquarters sometimes. At the time Unilever took over, Ben & Jerry's executives were told to “keep Unilever on the outer edge of its comfort zone,” Freese said.

“There are times we keep them at their outer edge and there are times they think we are pushing them over the edge,” he said. “We think that's our job at Ben & Jerry's.”

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