Supercreator PM: “Actions speak louder than marketing”
In conversation with brand crisis strategist Deb Gabor on the business implications of Ben & Jerry’s political decision to no longer sell their ice cream in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
After more than sixty days of radio silence on social media, Ben & Jerry’s announced in a statement on Monday that it would no longer sell its ice cream in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT). The decision follows a violent escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in May, so fierce observers feared it would develop into a protracted war.
“We believe it is inconsistent with our values,” Ben & Jerry’s said. “We also hear and recognize the concerns shared with us by our fans and trusted partners.” The brand informed the licensing partner who manufactures Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in Israel and distributes it in the region that it would not renew the agreement once it expires at the end of next year. “Although Ben & Jerry’s will no longer be sold in the OPT, we will stay in Israel through a different arrangement. We will share an update on this as soon as we’re ready.”
Alan Jope, CEO of Ben & Jerry’s parent company Unilever, said earlier today it remained fully committed to its business in Israel. “This was a decision that was taken by Ben & Jerry’s and its independent board in line with an acquisition agreement that we signed 20 years ago.”
Foreign policy — as consequential as it is — really isn’t in The Supercreator’s wheelhouse. But the story is interesting from a creator perspective because it raises questions about how to think about taking a social or political stand when it could put the economic well-being of your business at risk.
So I hopped on the phone yesterday morning with Deb Gabor, a brand crisis strategist and author of Branding is Sex and Irrational Loyalty for answers. And during our conversation, Gabor shared her thoughts on why Ben & Jerry’s went through with the decision even though it knew it would invite intense criticism, how brands can take a stand without co-opting a movement and what’s she paying attention to next in the B&J’s story.
The Supercreator: For those of us — and by those of us, I mean me — whose knowledge extends to Olivia Pope fixing political scandals on TV, what exactly is a crisis?
Deb Gabor: There are a bunch of different kinds of crises. Everybody’s brand is in crisis today. Regardless of what kind of brand you are, whether you’re a technology brand that serves consumers or business-to-business influencers, or you’re a consumer brand or you offer products or services, people have been fundamentally changed by their experience of about the last five or six years of a very divisive environment.
What we’ve seen is the rise of what I’ll “activist branding,” where brands really are required — because of some generational demographic and psychographic changes in audiences — to show up with a set of values and beliefs and let people know, beyond the products and services they sell what they actually stand for in the world.
The reason I say brands are in crisis is that you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If you go out there and say something that rubs someone the wrong way, someone else is going to pick up the narrative and control the conversation about your brand, right? So a crisis from the point of view of a brand is really the situation where you are not in control of the brand’s narrative. It could be because you got yourself into hot water, or you were unnecessarily or unwittingly thrust into a controversy that you didn’t even know you were going to step in.
Or the leadership of your organization made a bad move, bad decision or said something stupid that put your brand at risk. Or you have a bad corporate culture. I think about over the years, the dumpster fire that was the corporate culture at Uber, which is still sort of in the process of still getting cleaned up. All of these different things are potential crises.
Ben & Jerry’s had to know their decision to no longer sell their ice cream in the West Bank and East Jerusalem would attract intense criticism. Why do you think they went through with the decision anyway?
So Ben & Jerry’s has a long history of social activism and aligning with social-justice causes, right? It really is sort of part and parcel to their brand. And when they were sold to Unilever back in , one of the things that they fought really hard for in becoming part of this gigantic global conglomerate of brands was to maintain their independence in terms of being able to create a brand that aligned with the founders and the brand’s values.
When brands do this kind of stuff, it usually falls into one of two camps: It’s very well thought-out and on-strategy for them. It’s something that they want to do and they’re going to lean into it really hard. And they’re going to support it tooth and nail. Or sometimes brands go off half-cocked and go out there and they step into the fray unwittingly.
I suspect the decision-making [Ben & Jerry’s] went through is that they really thought about who I call the “ideal archetypal customer” — who is the Ben & Jerry’s customer for whom Ben & Jerry’s is a part of their identity? What would they think of what’s going on in Israel right now? What would their stance be? And how can we come to the world in a way that uses our values and beliefs to bond with their values and beliefs?
Now, in the process, they probably alienated I don’t what percentage of their customers. I did a quick scan on Twitter this morning and last night just to see what’s the conversation right now. It’s kind of evenly split in terms of the social media market-level dialogue of Ben & Jerry’s. There’s about half of the posts I was looking at — this is a very anecdotal and cursory count, by the way — that are like, Boycott Ben & Jerry’s for their boycott of Israel. And then the other half are like, Up with Ben & Jerry’s! and whatever.
So when brands make these moves, they have to really think about: Who is our audience? What are our audience’s values and beliefs? To what extent are we willing to take the risk of alienating a large swath of people? And are We OK with that?
As you mentioned, this isn’t the first time Ben & Jerry’s has taken a stance on a political or social issue. We’ve seen them express progressive views toward the Black Lives Matter movement and climate justice. What about the brand makes it positioned to do so without coming off as inauthentic or as a corporate culture vulture?
Ben & Jerry's is a pretty authentic brand. When brands are pretty predictable and when you look at a brand and you see the actions that they take in the marketplace, and you're like, Yeah, I get that, that totally makes sense for that brand. That usually means that the brand is very authentic and true to those values and doesn't just espouse those values in marketing — they actually live those values.
One of my mantras is that “actions speak louder than marketing.” And so this is a brand that has consistently taken action on a number of social causes and they're very much about human beings and social justice around the world, and here in the United States, and all that kind of stuff. So when it's when a brand behaves in a particular way, where you're like, A) I’m not surprised and B) that totally makes sense, that usually means that they are consistently living their values.
Authenticity, as I said, is key. We have seen brands co-opt a movement, especially over the course of the pandemic. Do you remember the hashtag we’re-in-this-together commercial? There was only one and every brand was running it. And it started off with the tinkly piano music, and then it showed the health care workers, taking their masks off after a hard day. And then showed people being together in their houses and helped us envision what the world is going to look like when the pandemic is over. There was only one commercial and 30 brands were running it at the same time. Basically, it comes off as very inauthentic and it looks like Hey, me, too. We're just imitating what everybody else is doing because we feel like we need to be in the fray.
Your most recent book coined the term “irrational loyalty” to describe the sentiment that sustains consumer brands through public turmoil. Help us understand how Ben & Jerry’s decision impacts its irrational loyalty.
The concept of irrational loyalty is where people are so indelibly bonded to a brand that they feel like they were cheating on it if they were to buy something else. This is the thing that keeps people going back to Chick-fil-A after it shows the world its values against LGBTQ people.
You have this internal dialogue where you're like, I don't want to support this. I don't want to support this business that seems to stand up against things that I value and people that I value in people that I care about yet those chicken nuggets are so effing good. I have a 23-year-old daughter who grew up on Chick-fil-A and you know she struggles with it every day. She's like “I feel dirty if I eat Chick-fil-A but I just love it so much.” That's irrational loyalty.
I’m guessing that Ben & Jerry’s was really thinking about who are the customers who are irrationally loyal to us? Who no matter what we do, are going to be aligned with us? And if they take an action where maybe it isn’t 100-percent aligned with us, we don’t risk losing them forever.
Are there instances where irrational loyalty can backfire? I know we’re talking in the corporate sense with Ben & Jerry’s. But I also think about where we are with the vaccine, delta variant and how a segment of the country believes partisan politicians and TV hosts over the expertise of public health officials. Is this an example of irrational loyalty gone wrong or do you attribute it to something else?
There’s been a lot of research and a lot written on the psychology behind things like megalomania and people sort of being addicted to their ideals. I can speak to the brand side, but I don’t talk about politics because I gotta make a living, right? But on the brand side where irrational loyalty goes wrong is when a brand maybe makes a wrong choice.
I’m trying to think of an example. [Pauses] This actually is somewhat political. So if you think back to the time leading up to the 2020 election, sometimes brands who demonstrated irrational loyalty to a particular candidate or cause experienced backlash from customers who were like, Why the hell are you aligning with that person? I think about brands going back several years and their association with things like the gun debate and support of the NRA or even the decision to sell or not sell firearms and ammo in their stores. Sometimes that can backfire.
What will you be watching for next in the Ben & Jerry’s situation?
What I'm watching for next is just to see, because the Israeli Prime Minister is trying to force Ben & Jerry’s to actually sell their product in Israel-occupied West Bank in East Jerusalem. I'm interested to see how is that actually going to play out? Is that a thing? That's what I'm watching for first.
Thank you so much for your time, Deb. This was a treat.
Awesome. Thank you. Take care.
— A couple of Pelosi updates: The Supercreator reported yesterday that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rejected the recommendation of two obsequious Trump allies to the select committee created to investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol attack.
Both rejected representatives voted against certifying the election but earlier today Pelosi said her decision was unmotivated by their certification votes. “Of the three [McCarthy picks] that I appointed, one of them voted against the ratification and the other two voted for it,” she said during a press conference today. “Having said that, though, the other two [Reps. Jim Jordan and Jim Banks] made statements and took actions that just made it ridiculous to put them on such a committee seeking the truth.
Pelosi and House Democrats are reportedly considering inviting Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois to join the Jan. 6 committee. Kinzinger is one of ten House Republicans — including committee member Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming — who voted to impeach Donald Trump for inciting the Capitol insurrection.
The select committee’s first hearing is on July 27.
👋🏾 Hi, hey, hello! Welcome to Supercreator PM. It’s Thursday, July 22. I’m Michael, writing to you from New York City. Thank you for spending part of your evening with me. Reach out with news, tips and ideas at email@example.com or on Twitter at @bymichaeljones. If someone forwarded you this email, subscribe to get Supercreator PM sent straight to your inbox.
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Editor’s note: Today’s email is running long, so no excerpts for the daily reading list — just links:
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— “Online anonymity isn't driving abuse of Black sports stars. Systemic racism is” by Melody Patry at TIME
— “We need more public defenders and civil rights attorneys as judges” by Clark Neily and Devi Rao at The Houston Chronicle
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