brand story & messaging, sustainable business

A Ben & Jerry’s lesson: do the right thing and tell the story

Carolyn McMaster | August 24, 2017

Some of us in the sustainable business and B Corp communities gave a collective gasp at last month’s news that trace amounts of glyphosate (the herbicide in Roundup) had turned up in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. The B Corp responded quickly, putting the findings in context and explaining its continuing quest for better products.

The environmental takeaway of this story is that glyphosate is so pervasive that it sneaks into even virtuous supply chains. It should be banned. The brand story takeaway is that sustainable companies focused on taking the high ground are (rightly) held to a higher standard, and need to be prepared to counter critics.

Doing the right thing, right away
Ben & Jerry’s did the right thing, right away, posting a statement that described the situation and explained that the levels of glyphosate in its ice cream were well below safe levels, noting that one organic bread tested at levels 78 times higher. They referenced their longstanding commitment to creating healthy, safe food and how they’ve worked for that. Unfortunately, they did not say whether they would work on getting glyphosate out of their products, assuming it’s possible, since the chemical is so pervasive.

Nonetheless, Ben & Jerry’s statement is reassuring because the company truly has been doing the right thing since its founding nearly 40 years ago. That well of credibility and trust is critical for addressing challenges and countering critics. It’s a story that also helped Ben & Jerry’s preserve brand loyalty (and its own integrity) through the Unilever acquisition, for one big example.

Building sustainability cred requires a good story
Sustainable businesses have to prove themselves, constantly. Building sustainability cred not only requires doing the right thing, it also requires telling the story clearly and consistently over time. A strong brand story will serve a company well when it makes a misstep, whether it’s four decades old or four years old.

This episode reveals one other truth: no matter how well you tell your story and how pristine your motives are, you need a crisis PR plan. Even with best efforts, bad things happen. (Nancy Himmelfarb uses Ben & Jerry’s as a jumping-off point to describe some of the ways to be prepared for “hot button” CSR issues in this Environmental Leader piece.) Even if you don’t expect a crisis (who does?), being prepared, being transparent and having a well-known story will put you in the best position to weather a storm.

Find out more about telling your sustainability story in our guide, Storytelling with Purpose: How Stories Build Brand Value.

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