Ben & Jerry’s CEO: How to Get Your Social Impact Game On

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If you ever want to one-up someone in a conversation about corporate social responsibility, all you have to do is toss in the words “Unilever” or “Paul Polman,” and it’s over. It’s done. Unilever and Polman can’t be topped. You win.

But you know what would even be an even bigger win? Becoming a company like Unilever or a CEO like Polman. Well, today’s your lucky day because I interviewed the CEO of everyone’s favorite Unilever brand, Ben & Jerry’s. Part man, part dessert god, Jostein Solheim has a merry disposition that will make you suspect he eats ice cream all day. If I counted the number of times he laughed during our conversation, it would probably be about 500, give or take.

However, as this conversation will prove, he does in fact do more than eat ice cream. He shared with me how to integrate social good into your business model, measure impact and recruit more brand fans … all vital components for a successful brand.

Solheim is personable, savvy and authentic — everything you’d want in a CEO. He’s excited about businesses that are “trying to do more than just sell more stuff.” His work jives with his outdoor Norwegian heritage, where weekend activities included hiking, skiing, boating, catching your own fish for dinner, and doing anything and everything in nature.

Today, he still has “an enormous relationship with nature” and is sad to see it destroyed.

Solheim loves to see his team win and do amazing things. He would love it even more if he could help other companies and CEOs join forces and change the world together. Here are his words of advice, caution and inspiration. You’re welcome.

TriplePundit: How do you combine innovation and scale in your CSR program?

Jostein Solheim: At Ben & Jerry’s, we don’t really have a [corporate social responsibility (CSR) program]. It’s an integral part of our business model itself. It’s not really a separate thing. Our social impact is built into the core business model of linked prosperity, where we look to maximize the benefit along the value chain for all the key stakeholders. Having that built into the business model means that, as we innovate, we directly impact the whole system. As we grow our business, we also grow our social impact.

3p: How do you measure the impact of your socially responsible initiatives?

JS: There are multiple ways we measure. Measurement is critical for any business. What you measure is what you get in many ways.

For me, transparency is the first step toward measuring impact, because it allows people to contribute and give you feedback. We invite people like yourself to visit our company, meet the people and have free access, because we believe that stakeholders should be treated like co-owners and have access to the information that they need.

But we are also real data nerds. We love to have fun, but we’re nerdy when it comes to social impact. We have an index with a 200-point scale where we measure all the direct impacts — from the way we buy dairy to the Fair Trade ingredients, to the well-being of our employees, to the size and scale of our campaigns. The index is audited by a third party. They issue a report that you can see on our website.

But then, we’re not happy yet. We’re a B Corporation. So, the third measurement step we use is completing the B Impact Assessment. That is also audited. It covers employees and environment, the whole works.

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3p: Can you tell me about a time when you took action on a stakeholder’s suggestion?

JS: Many of our great ideas, new products and campaigns actually come from people contacting us and saying, “Hey, why don’t you do this or that?” We get a lot of suggestions. The famous flavor, Cherry Garcia, was suggested by a fan.

We also get a lot of suggestions from NGOs. We treat those not as criticism but as opportunities to look at how a program or initiative looks from their perspective and what we can do to improve. Vegans have been contacting us for a long time … and we’re now launching a range of nondairy vegan Ben & Jerry’s — which, by the way, reduces our carbon footprint significantly.

3p: How do your social impact initiatives affect your brand image?

JS: We refer to the people that like Ben & Jerry’s as “the fans,” because you treat fans differently than you treat consumers. So, we have brand fans, and we have a responsibility to them to maintain standards and fight the fights they want us to engage in.

There’s nothing stronger than a relationship that’s built on shared values and passions for the greater good of society. I think our social mission plays a huge impact on our relationship with our fans. When you buy a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, you’re buying caring dairy: Fair Trade, non-GMO. It’s at the core of our relationship with our customers.

3p: Many companies have trouble convincing people to care enough to buy their eco-friendly products. What are your thoughts?

JS: I think people care more and more. People are looking at their actions and whether they’re buying things that make a difference or just buying the cheapest whatever.

Building a fan base is not only done through advertising. You do 10 things that will make the world a better place, and then you talk about one thing. But don’t do a little thing and expect everyone’s going to love you for it. Because, actually, doing good is what’s expected of you as a good company, and it’s not really newsworthy. The point is the doing, not the talking. Other people will do the talking about you.

If you look at the latest Nielsen survey, families across 60 countries were asked whether they would pay more for a socially responsible brand. It went from 50 percent who said “yes” in 2013 to 66 percent in 2015. Now when you think about it, that’s covering a population of [400 million or 500 million] people. That’s a huge shift.

So, a lot of companies are now saying, “I need to market to this.” My message to them is: “No, you have to act on this. Then your actions will be noted and people will find out, but don’t spend your resources on trying to get the message out there. Spend your resources on acting and doing the right things.”

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3p: What advice would you give to a company wanting to create social impact?

JS: Oh, there are a lot of things you can do and a lot of great organizations to help you do it. The key is to find the right people to help you … to give you advice, reflect with you, look at your business, etc.

A great starting-point is the CEO Connection, which works with the social impact unit at Wharton business school. You can quickly meet a whole group of people who would help you look at your business and where the opportunities are. You can also talk to other companies going through that journey.

If you want to look at your whole business model, then [the next tier is] looking at the B Impact Assessment and the B Corporation. Ask: What do these companies do? How do they operate? Then you can either join them or pick out the elements that work for your business.

The key to all of this is to organize a broad coalition inside your company. This isn’t a CEO thing. This is a team effort. The broader a base you can [give social good] in the company, the better program and bigger impact you’ll have.

The last piece of advice is: Don’t overthink it. What matters are not your words but your actions. If you decide to go west, start walking west while you work out exactly where your destination is. Grab the first things that are in the right direction and act on them, and from those actions you will learn, get feedback, and then you can fine-tune. Don’t try to work out on paper how to save the world.

Game-time

Well, I hope you’ve taken Solheim’s words of wisdom to heart as much as I did. Hopefully they infused you with passion to shower the world with goodness like confetti, and maybe to join Solheim’s CEO Connection to collaborate on social impact. Go forth and conquer with kindness. Peace out, readers.

* Dialogue edited for clarity.

** Image credits: 1) photo of Jostein Solheim, life cycle chart 2) cute penguin illustration via Ben & Jerry’s website.

Renee Farris

Renee is a social impact strategist who works with companies to help them focus on key social and environmental opportunities. She loves connecting with people so feel free to contact her at renee.a.farris@gmail.com.

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