Some Protesters Find Ben & Jerry's Support Hard to Swallow

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Ben and Jerry feeds ice ceam to Occupy Wall Street, Unilever mumBen & Jerry's fed 600 protesters ice cream at Occupy Wall Street's home base in New York's Zuccotti Park on Tuesday. The Vermont-based ice cream vendor is the first large company to have declared public support of the movement, expressing its "deepest admiration" for the protesters in a statement released last weekend via the company's website.

At the protest's Food Committee headquarters in the center of Zuccotti park, hungry protesters line up to be served by volunteers in aprons, who rush around to keep donated food plentifully stocked on long buffet tables. On Tuesday afternoon, the free ice cream--served with little fanfare and no corporate logos-- was devoured within hours.

But that evening, protesters expressed mixed feelings about corporations latching onto their cause. Some, like Jules Caldarera, a 20-year-old student from New Mexico, were excited to see support from a high-profile company like Ben & Jerry's. Many didn't realize that the ice cream was from Ben & Jerry's. Others found it strange that any company would support an anti-corporate protest.

"It's problematic," says Donal Foreman, a 26-year-old from Ireland. Foreman has been attending the protests since their launch but wasn't there to eat any of the free treats during the day on Tuesday. "Ben & Jerry's is co-opting the movement."

Regardless, the brand has aligned itself with Occupy Wall Street's values. In its statement, Ben & Jerry's independent board of directors decries "the inequity that exists between classes in our country," as well as the fact that "corporations are permitted to spend unlimited resources to influence elections while stockpiling a trillion dollars rather than hiring people."

"Ben and Jerry's is a corporate entity." Foreman points out. "Their primary interest is profit and giving away ice cream doesn't change or threaten that."

"Still, it's hard to say no to free ice cream," he adds.

Corporate Owner Mute

Unilever (UN)(UL), the parent company of Ben and Jerry's (as well as Lipton, Dove and Axe, among other brands) might very well agree with Foreman. A Unilever spokesperson told DailyFinance, "Unilever maintains a neutral position with regard to social movements and will make no public statements about this particular campaign."

Unilever is a publicly traded, multinational conglomerate with 167,000 employees and operating profits of $6.3 billion in 2010. It donates hundreds of thousands of dollars to lobbying groups each year ($750,000 in 2010, according to statements filed to Congress), in support of such causes as the free trade of sugar -- a key ingredient in ice cream.

Ben & Jerry's is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Unilever, which is responsible for all business decisions, and appoints its own independent board of directors. All of Ben & Jerry's profits go to Unilever. Ben & Jerry's did not respond to requests for comment.

Crunchy Brand, Competitive World
Ever since Ben & Jerry's was bought by Unilever for $326 million in 2000, the ice-cream maker has struggled to maintain its crunchy image amid competitive business practices.

Founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield (who tried to prevent the buyout) no longer hold management positions, remaining involved solely as brand ambassadors. Executive salaries -- once capped at seven times the salary of the lowest paid employee -- are now undisclosed. And the company's 2009 commitment to fair trade ingredients proved a struggle to implement under Unilever's oversight, as the founders revealed to the Financial Times.

Ultimately, Unilever OK'd fair trade for Ben & Jerry's, deciding that "a more sustainable brand is often a more desirable brand," a spokesman told The New York Times later that year. The brand is now in the process of sourcing fair trade ingredients for all its U.S. products, a project it hopes to have completed by 2013.

Protest vs. Profit

Ben & Jerry's progressive and independent image remains essential to its success as a brand, says Tom Zara, the Global Practice Leader of Corporate Citizenship at Interbrand.

"Ben & Jerry's is about celebrating individuality, self expression, and the political process in its good, bad, and ugly forms ... It's very much in its DNA to participate in what is a modern version of Woodstock," he explains.

Occupy Wall Street is only the company's most recent cause. Ben & Jerry's has released flavors like "Something's Fishy," in protest of FDA approval of genetically engineered salmon, and "Yes, Pecan!", after Barack Obama's election. It has also moved to use cage-free eggs in its ice cream, and pays workers at its Vermont plant a "living wage" significantly above the state minimum.

But rarely have Ben & Jerry's activist endorsements directly conflicted with the practices of its parent company. While the nebulous demands of Occupy Wall Street make it hard to define specific points of disagreement, the lobbying money spent by Unilever seems inconsistent with the message posted on Ben & Jerry's website Saturday.

"Unilever respects the unique social mission of Ben & Jerry's and the independence of its board in speaking out on social issues," the Unilever spokesperson told DailyFinance.

According to Zara, allowing Ben & Jerry autonomy in branding itself as anti-establishment and associating with the protest is ultimately in Unilever's interest. "While as the owner [Unilever] has the license to do anything it wants with Ben & Jerry's ... the unique brand is a quantifiable contribution to the bottom line," he says. "The asset they bought would diminish in value if they were to change it."

In other words, endorsements of protests can turn into profit.

Still, some Occupiers defend their favorite ice cream brand, maintaining that its interest in the protest is genuine despite possible benefit to Unilever.

For Jules Caldarera, the protester from New Mexico, Ben & Jerry's giveaway reminded her of its pre-corporate past. "I don't think it's a marketing scheme," she says. "Ben & Jerry's cares about the cause and are donating real support in the form of food."

"They're not like the Democratic party," she added.
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