Ben & Jerry’s has been pioneering social change and progressive causes for as long as it has been churning delicious ice cream. It is the poster child for socially focused business and is not shy about taking a stand on controversial social issues.
Famously vocal in speaking up against serious problems such as racial injustice, climate change, LGBTQ+ equality, and refugee rights, it should come as no surprise that the brand recently announced its controversial decision not to sell its ice cream in occupied Palestinian territory in Israel’s West Banks and East Jerusalem areas.
Founded in 1978 by Bennett Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, Ben & Jerry’s has long viewed supporting social justice and progressive causes as an indelible part of their brand’s value. As proud Jewish people, they have personally felt under pressure from activists calling for their brand to end its complicity in Israel’s violation of Palestinian rights.
After much thought, the company decided to take through the following announcement: “We believe it is inconsistent with our values for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to be sold in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT).”
Ben & Jerry’s stance has drawn harsh criticism from the Israeli Prime Minister, Naftali Bennet, and US politicians, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
In today’s turbulent times, brands that decide to speak up on social injustice risk a political firestorm that could alienate customers. Navigating such a storm requires strategic finesse, something branding master Deb Gabor has (literally) written the book on—twice.
The psychology behind brand loyalty
As the Founder and CEO of Sol Marketing, Gabor has influenced brands worldwide, solving business and branding problems for industry titans such as Microsoft, Dell, NBC Universal, Allrecipes, NPR, and Siemens. Her latest best-selling book, Irrational Loyalty: Building a Brand that Thrives in Turbulent Times, is an essential guide for any business attempting to articulate their brands to modern audiences.
In today’s modern world, a brand is no longer just about a logo or catchy jingle—it is a magnet to attract people who share similar values and beliefs. During an interview with RETHINK Retail, Gabor revealed that when a brand considers taking a social stance, it typically has to make a difficult decision that is often divisive.
“The reason that people choose a brand is not entirely cognitive. It’s an emotional experience which means people must feel something, a connection when selecting a brand.”
When a brand is considering speaking out and taking a stand, it needs to think deeply about who are they built to serve and how a decision would make loyal customers feel. Likewise, it is critical to consider whether a brand has customers who don’t fit the ideal persona and the consequences of forever alienating this group.
According to Gabor, “actions speak louder than marketing,” which is a vital concept for organizations to evaluate when considering the long-term impact of controversial decisions on their brand’s value.
All politics aside, Deb believes Ben and Jerry’s brand supporters most likely feel aligned with the company’s decision. She understands that the progressive ice cream brand has earned what she defines as irrational loyalty.
“Irrational loyalty is a condition of irrational belief in a brand that will sustain a company through times of crisis,” Gabor revealed. “It occurs when people become so delicately bonded to a brand that they feel like they were cheating on if they were choosing alternatives despite a product being virtually indistinguishable from a functional unemotional perspective.”
Like any relationship between people, brands show up to a conversation with a set of values and beliefs. Every time a company behaves on-brand in its relationship with consumers, it deposits into a shared emotional bank account.
When that account is positive, brands can survive making a controversial opinion and not experience a divorce initiated by most loyal customers. Brands like Ben & Jerry’s that have earned their customers’ irrational loyalty can endure crisis and criticism without hurting their bottom line.
Company vs. consumer preferences
But sometimes, a brand takes a social stance unaligned with the ethics and values of their target customers. According to Gabor, this creates cognitive dissonance in the mind of consumers and can be determinantal to the pursuit of irrational loyalty.
Consider, for example, Chick-fil-A, who, despite its philosophy of treating its customers and other stakeholders with respect and care they deserve, has taken actions that speak much louder than their marketing. The brand’s famously conservative founder has consistently taken unpopular stances on social and political issues, such as gay marriage, that have left a bad taste in the mouths of many in its customer base.
Gabor cautions leaders to remember that they are a living, breathing walking emblem of their brand, whether they like it or not. Leaders must consider how their personal views align with the shared values of their customers.
“It’s a hard time to be a brand,” she said. “Consumers have full access to information and will formulate emotional connections, positive and negative, to a brand.”
In some cases, these positive and negative implications expand beyond the company, potentially affecting the brand image of a larger parent company. Gabor noted that a brand must work with its shareholders to develop a strategic plan for navigating controversy.
In Ben & Jerry’s case, its parent company, Unilever, is not known for its political and social activism but has consistently honored its 2000 acquisition agreement to allow the ice cream company to execute its social mission independently. Unilever said as much in a recent statement and added that it welcomed how Ben & Jerry’s chooses to address the very complex and sensitive Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“I think that the key point is that the relationship between Unilever and Ben & Jerry’s is secular, and the opinions expressed by Ben & Jerry’s do not automatically reflect the views of Unilever,” said Gabor.
As the world watches Ben & Jerry’s weather the storm of criticism for their alleged anti-Israel stance, keep in mind the founders didn’t build the brand for their critics. They created it for customers who believe in social ethics just as much as they love their pint of “Half-Baked.”
When irrationally loyal customers buy Ben & Jerry’s, they aren’t just consuming a product; they are making a statement about their identity, beliefs, and values.
In a time when consumers increasingly require that the brands they patronize say something about something, Gabor reminds brands, “the answer is to work on creating an emotional relationship with customers—that’s how you create irrational loyalty.”
In Ben & Jerry’s case, consumers’ irrational loyalty will surely keep the brand from melting.