When it comes to social activism, no topic is off limits for Ben & Jerry’s, said its CEO Matthew McCarthy at Tuesday’s Fortune Connect summit.
The company, which is owned by Unilever, made headlines this week when it announced it would “end sales of our ice cream in the Occupied Palestinian Territory,” prompting swift backlash from Israeli politicians and criticism from the Anti-Defamation League. Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called the company’s actions a “boycott of Israel,” and vowed to “act aggressively” against Unilever. Some Israeli politicians called the move anti-Semitic.
It’s not the first time the company has faced criticism, but as an “aspiring social justice company,” Ben & Jerry’s is used to controversy, McCarthy said Tuesday, adding there was no issue he wishes he hadn’t stepped into.
“I think some businesspeople struggle with some of this work because we all kind of feel like we’ve taken the Hippocratic oath when we go into business,” he said. “The first thing we want to do is don’t do any harm, don’t have a negative headline, don’t get any negative tweets. And the reality is that’s just unrealistic.”
When it comes to stances on social issues, the company centers its actions around its values. These values were instituted by its founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield 43 years ago and are now shaped by McCarthy and all employees, he said.
When Ben & Jerry’s acts consistently with those values, McCarthy said, it doesn’t matter that they alienate some people.
“A business or a brand that tries to be all things to all people—we know what happens to those folks, you usually tend to be not a whole lot to anybody,” McCarthy said.
A key distinction for McCarthy, though, is that the ice cream company’s actions are not “cause marketing,” but rather business activism. Instead of analyzing which social justice action or cause might help sell more stuff, McCarthy said the company keeps this consideration out of its decision making.
“We don’t do the things we do to sell more ice cream,” McCarthy said.
The company has focused its activism on subjects like ending white supremacy, reducing climate change, and diverting funding meant for police departments to alternative community-driven solutions.
Although the breadth of the brand’s activism is broad, McCarthy said it all aligns with how the company sees itself, which draws customers who feel the same way and support it.
“When people know what you stand for, you’re clear about what your values are, and put your actions consistently behind your values,” said McCarthy. “Of course, you’re going to create more loyalty with your fans.”
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