Thursday, October 13, 2011

The curious case of Ben & Jerry's

Do you like Ben & Jerry's ice cream? Most probably a resounding yes.  But this post is not about its ice cream. Its about what it has done on Tuesday.

What it did on Tuesday was to go to New York's Zuccotti Park where the Occupy Wall Street protesters are camped and dole out free ice cream to all of them. Nothing spectacular about that, except that it went on to publicly declare its support for the protesters. It also published a statement from its Board of Directors that the company has the deepest admiration for the protesters and is standing with them. You can read what the Board said here.

Ben & Jerry's has long been a left leaning company promoting a variety of causes. Its founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield started the company with a clear social and sometimes political agenda. So should this latest action be surprising. Yes, because, Ben & Jerry's is no longer an independent company. It's a subsidiary of Unilever, a global multinational company, perhaps the very sort that the Occupy Wall Street protesters are agitated against (that is, if somebody can decipher what exactly they are protesting about).

Was Unilever ambushed by the act of Ben & Jerry's ? Tough to believe so - for the Board of Ben & Jerry's has Unilever representatives, including an ex Director of Unilever itself. Unilever has issued a statement that it is neutral to social campaigns and has no comment to make, but that is a blithe remark considering that  its subsidiary is indeed making a very loud statement.

How far do you let your subsidiary act on its own ? Usually subsidairies are simply legal shells and the parent runs them as one corporate whole, unless there are external shareholders. But Ben & Jerry's is different. Perhaps because of its historical brand image. Perhaps because of covenants agreed with the founders at the time of acquisition to allow the company to have a social agenda. But still, the latest action seems a step too far. I won't be surprised if the upstart is reined in.

What of the protestors ? They are objecting to evil corporations; right ? Do they want the support of one ? Some of them expressed mixed feelings. They said they were uneasy about corporations muscling in on their patch. But they also said, they could not turn down a free ice cream !

Very curious.