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‘It's not a marketing exercise’: Ben & Jerry’s on dismantling white supremacy

The Drum 23 Jun 2020 07:30
Ben & Jerry's CEO Matthew McCarthy called on its customers to support efforts to defund the police last week

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death and the subsequent global protests about systemic racism and police brutality against black people, Ben & Jerry’s global head of activism explains how the brand is making a meaningful contribution to dismantling white supremacy and why it doesn’t rely on agency partners to power its brand purpose.

“There are moments in the course of history when it’s important to stand up and be counted,” says Ben & Jerry’s global head of activism Christopher Miller, who believes that statement to be true of individuals and brands alike.

The self-described “rabble-rouser” has been managing Ben & Jerry’s activism efforts since 2012. He started his career working for Bernie Sanders in the US House of Representatives and has also worked as a climate campaigner for Greenpeace.

Last month, Miller was faced with one of these history-altering moments when America was confronted with the death of yet another unarmed black citizen at the hands of the police.

Ben & Jerry’s has been working on issues related to race since before Miller arrived. It was 2016, in the aftermath of the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott by a Charlotte police officer, when it first aligned itself with the Black Lives Matter movement and encouraged customers to educate themselves or be complicit. More recently, it used its 420 campaign (which marks the 20 April celebration of cannabis culture) to highlight the racial injustices tied up in the cannabis industry.

“The events of the last few weeks felt like it was another one of these moments. What we saw in Minneapolis and Georgia required us to not only align ourselves with the movement for black lives, but to also call this for what it was – what we saw was the result of a culture of white supremacy.”

“The murder of George Floyd was the result of inhumane police brutality that is perpetuated by a culture of white supremacy,” continued the advertiser.

The brand didn’t stop at the stark statement. It also issued a series of four “concrete steps” to dismantle white supremacy, including calling on President Trump to commit the US to a formal process of healing and reconciliation, asking Congress to create a commission to study the effects of slavery and discrimination from 1619 to the present and supporting the Floyd family’s call to create a national task force that would draft bipartisan legislation aimed at ending racial violence and increasing police accountability.

The George Floyd demonstrations are stirring long-overdue change. In the US and UK, statues and monuments of people with links to slavery are being toppled by demonstrators; the police officer responsible has been charged with murder and manslaughter; a national conversation is forcing white people to confront their role in a system built for them; and in perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing signal of change, a street within walking distance of Donald Trump in the White House has been renamed ‘Black Lives Matter Plaza’. It’s clear that as well as selling 150 million units of ice cream a year, Ben & Jerry’s wants to come along on this journey and be on the right side of history too. Over the weekend, its chief executive Matthew McCarthy called on its customers to support efforts to defund the police – his message coming on Juneteeth, the day that commemorates the emancipation of enslaved people in the US.

“This isn’t a four-point plan that was dreamed up by agency partners or our marketing team,” Miller asserts.

Where many brands charge their ad shops with communicating their purpose and social good initiatives, Miller is frank that this isn’t the case at Ben & Jerry’s.

He argues Ben & Jerry’s has carved out a place in standing up for societal change, not only because it’s coming from a place of authenticity but also because it takes the tools it has as a for-profit ice-cream maker that “knows how to market stuff” and applies that to activism.

Does every brand need a rabble-rouser?

In recent weeks, many brands have shown solidarity with Black Lives Matter, among them Nike, Adidas and L’Oreal. The latter fell foul of online critics who pointed out that its statement of support did not square with previous treatment of black transgender model Munroe Bergdorf, who was swiftly dropped by the cosmetics giant when she spoke out against racism in 2017. The French company has since apologised and reached out to Berfdorf to come back on board as an ambassador.

“Yes there has been a critique around virtue signalling that the idea that some brands are co-opting a movement to advance their marketing strategy.

"Everybody, unless you’re living in a cave somewhere. been touched by this. I felt a desire inside my own company for us to have something to say about this, so I’m sure other companies have felt this. So largely, I see this as a positive development.”

“It made a very broad statement acknowledging the grief that the Floyd family is feeling, but without using even the word racism and it got beat up pretty bad… it should have given players the opportunity to speak on its behalf and build some bridges, that was a missed opportunity and dangerous place to be.”

Helping come up with solutions to solve the latter, he explains, is something that is rooted in his company's values. In other markets, it's looking at issues around climate change.

"Our two co-founders were counterculture progressives that pioneered an approach to business that attempted to use it to drive impact and advance progressive social change.

"We're in 40 countries globally now and one of the most recognized ice cream brands on the planet, but I believe - and I think my colleagues do too - that part of that success has been our willingness as a company to do more than just selling ice cream."

Miller spoke with The Drum's trends editor Rebecca Stewart as part of The Drum's Can-Do Festival, an online event celebrating the positive energy, innovation and creative thinking that can make the marketing community such a powerful force for good. You can watch the interview in full here.

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George FloydBen JerryMillerChristopher MillerUS
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