How to achieve timeless customer engagement by Jerry Greenfield

In Customer Engagement by Oliver Arscott

Jerry Greenfield, Ben & Jerry's, Customer Loyalty, Customer Engagement, Social Responsibility

Interview: I was lucky enough to catch up with Loyalty World speaker Jerry Greenfield, Co-Founder of internationally adored Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream. Ben and Jerry's is known the world over not just for its delicious ice cream but for its commitment to social and environmental issues. In this they have forged a bond of trust between themselves and their customers that has stood the test of time.

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Could we start Jerry by talking a little about your background and the founding of Ben and Jerry's?

Sure thing. Ben and I are friends from Junior High School, we met in 7th Grade when we were 13 years old. After our formal education I was trying to get into Medical School and never got in, Ben dropped out of college, and so we were pretty much failing at everything we were trying to do. We opened up Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream Parlour really just for fun. We didn't know anything about ice cream and thought we would go and do it for a couple of years before doing something else together. We certainly never envisioned that we were going to get into business, it was really just an adventure.

When did you decide that this was a project you were going to dedicate everything to?

Right at the beginning it really wasn't that we were doing well, it was that we were doing everything we could to survive. I would say that the ice cream was an artistic success, but we certainly didn't have any business training. Around about five years in we realised that there was something special going on. I think the whole idea of Ben and Jerry's evolved over time, starting out as a homemade community ice cream parlour, and developing into what we view now as a company that is trying to use its power to address social and environmental issues in the communities in which we operate.

On the subject of social and environmental issues, something that seems to stand at the core of Ben and Jerry's is the mission statement. Is this something that has been around since the beginning or is it a recent evolution?

We started in 1978 and wrote the mission statement around about 10 years into the business. That was the result of wanting to formalise the thinking of the company, that we were not simply an ice cream company or a company that was only focused on making money in a conventional business sense. We wanted to make a statement mostly for ourselves internally to help guide us so that when we covered strategy, planning or even day-to-day decision making we were thinking about the wider picture rather than just price and quality.

And how important do you think this foundation has been in making your brand a byword for a great experience?

I believe that the mission of the company has been essential to our continued success. Obviously you have to have a great product, and not only that but you have to be able to do everything else in your business well, from distribution to marketing to finance. But being a company that tries to integrate social and environmental concerns into daily activities has really helped to define what Ben and Jerry's is. In terms of connecting with customers and employees it has completely defined us.

Were you concerned when Ben and Jerry's was bought by Unilever that some of those core values were going to get lost along the way?

Oh yes. It was nothing about Unilever, it was more that we were concerned that any company that acquired Ben and Jerry's might not be willing to pursue in the same aggressive way the mission of the company.

Initially there were some things put into the acquisition agreement that tried to safeguard some of the core Ben and Jerry's precepts. A continuation of funding to the Ben and Jerry's Foundation and a commitment to continue to support family founders, for example.

It's been about 12 years and there have certainly been ups and downs over that period, but I would say recently that the support from Unilever has been great. I would go so far as to say I've been pleasantly surprised by how good the support has been.

One of the big themes we're looking to cover at Loyalty World is the changing nature of the customer in the digital world. How have you seen interaction with the customer change since 1978?

It's changed monumentally, but for Ben and Jerry's the quality of the interactions haven't really changed, it's just the method of engagement that is different. Ben and Jerry's has always been a very human scale company. We always try to have a different kind of relationship with our customers, not just selling them a product but partnering with them on working together to improve lives and communities. So in that regard things are still strikingly similar. The fact that other companies now are trying to have that personalised interaction and relationship with customers has just showed us that we were on the right track.

It's not that we were seeking some innovative way to connect with people, it's just who we were. We don't have a business background, we always just wanted to have a company run the way someone on the street would run it. I remember in the beginning every customer who wrote into the company would get a personal response from myself. Not that I can do that anymore, but Ben and Jerry's still tries to maintain that relationship with people. The fact that several of the company's most successful flavours, including Cherry Garcia and Chunky Monkey, were customer suggestions speaks volumes about the sort of relationship we have with customers.

What is your opinion of social media as a tool and as a way of interacting with customers?

It's funny for me because both Ben and I are 61, and so we're kind of dinosaurs in this social media world. I think that it affords companies a way to be genuine and authentic and real that they can't do in mass media type interaction. I think it's a real opportunity to connect with people.

One of the big concerns in the social media space is around the risk of negative publicity if the tone is wrong. Has fear of controversy ever stopped you from interacting in a public way?

No I think that Ben and Jerry's broke a lot of rules. The company has always been very outspoken about social and political issues which most other businesses would shy away from. We've always felt that values are an essential part of who we are. Most businesses don't have values. They don't stand for anything except financial success, whereas our success flows from our values. We never felt constrained in any way.

Do you think that brands are now feel that they have to retroactively define a brand identity and a set of values so that they can fit into this new world? Do you think that customers will see through this?

I think that customers are very smart. If what companies are doing is not genuine then customers will see through it. Most brands take on certain attributes or characteristics because they want to appear a certain way. It's not that they are that way, it's just the way they want to define what their brand is. They then spend a lot of money trying to communicate their new image. We've always found that it's a lot better to honestly believe in things and then communicate that. It's certainly a lot less expensive than creating a false identity. Second of all you don't have to think about how to change it or be current because you are who you really are.

How do you localise an international brand like Ben and Jerry's?

It is somewhat challenging for us to figure out, however we're in a fortunate position where we have a consistent product around the world. The way that the company communicates in different cultures might be a little different, however ultimately the progressive social values of at the core of the business remain the same around the world. An example of this is our support of marriage equality, which we were heavily involved with several years ago in the United States and just this year in the UK. There has been the issue of same-sex marriage and Ben and Jerry's has been publically outspoken in support of that. In Italy there has been some discussion about civil unions, and similarly we have thrown our support behind that as well. You have to have commitment to what you believe in and, whilst you might not get 100% support, ultimately no brand can ever hope to hit that level of approval anyway. Isn't it better to be honest in what you believe in? Your relationships with customers then become not so much about a cute or humorous marketing campaign, but instead about bringing about real and common goals.

Jerry you're going to be joining us in November to keynote at our Loyalty World conference. Why are you excited about getting involved in the show?

I am very excited about coming to London. I always love coming over to the UK, I think that the people are incredibly charming! It's going to be nice to share the ideas that Ben and Jerry's have come upon, particularly the idea that you can have a business that believes in more than just making money, that you can have a business that actively supports environmental and social issues, and that you can still be as financially successful as any other business.

One final question, what is your favourite Ben and Jerry's flavour?

I'm afraid my favourite flavour is one that you don't have in the UK, which is called AmeriCone Dream. But I'm always a fan of Vanilla Toffee Crunch as well.

Thanks for your time Jerry, looking forward to meeting you in London!

To hear from another of our Loyalty World keynote speakers, download this interview with real-time engagement superstar David Meerman Scott.