The story on the relationship between Unilever and Ben & Jerry's that ran in Thursday's New York Times isn’t really hard news. It’s the Mister Softee version of what really happened.
What the story leaves out is what Unilever does not want you to know. To save money, Unilever executives ordered the recipes for Cherry Garcia and other popular flavors changed shortly after it acquired Ben & Jerry’s in 2000. The company did it without telling the independent board of Ben & Jerry’s, even though going behind the board’s back was prohibited by the legally-binding Sales Agreements. The cherries in Cherry Garcia “tasted like rubber” for several years, according to board member Pierre Ferrari; chunks got smaller, and there was more air in the mix. Scoop-shop owners noticed the differences immediately and protested, without effect. The shop owners started filing lawsuits.
In 2008, after years of stonewalling by Unilever and frustration in Vermont, the independent board told Unilever it had breached the agreements and was required to change the ingredients back. In other words, the Vermonters threatened to take action against the company that owned them. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield almost went on a publicity tour to promote a protest flavor called “Unilever Squash,” because Unilever was squashing the company they founded.
If the dispute had gone public, it could have destroyed the brand's image. But at the last minute, Unilever came to the table, started taking the Sales Agreements seriously, named Jostein Solheim CEO of Ben & Jerry’s, and gave him the authority and the money to pursue the social mission for real. The entire story is told in the last third of my 2014 book about the social mission of Ben & Jerry's, "Ice Cream Social."
Now, don’t get me wrong — Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever since 2009, has been working hard to push the world’s second-largest food company toward sustainable and ethical business practices. The main point of the Times story is correct. The social mission of Ben & Jerry’s is going strong. Also, Mister Softee is great New York City ice cream. But it’s soft ice cream. Don't forget the hard story.
Image credit: Flickr/Alison Fayre
Based in Ithaca, New York, Brad Edmondson is the author of "Ice Cream Social: The Struggle for the Soul of Ben & Jerry's." He is also an award-winning journalist and business consultant who helps his clients understand and benefit from social change. His writing appears regularly in national magazines, including AARP and The American Scholar.