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Ben & Jerry's Gets a New CEO -- and He's Not Just About Ice Cream

Jan Lee headshotWords by Jan Lee
Leadership & Transparency
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Ben & Jerry’s new CEO has big plans for the country’s third-leading ice cream company. And it’s not all going to be about new flavors.

Matthew McCarthy is a veteran marketing specialist who has more than two decades under his belt at Unilever. According to a recent press release, he’s quintessential proof that not everything about marketing is about sales. The company is very much about pushing corporate social responsibility (CSR) forward and developing ideal models that give back to the community while promoting the company’s product.

In a recent CNBC interview McCarthy was drilled about his ideals and his perspectives toward the company ideals, social values and how Ben & Jerry’s could further its role as a leader in communities. A panel of four journalists bombarded him with questions.

“Businesses are in business to serve people, whether you make products [or provide] services. And you are also embedded in communities,” McCarthy said matter-of-factly. “So I think acknowledging that you are part of a community and being part of the social change you want to see be a part of the world you serve is actually a part of business – I actually think that’s in the DNA of Ben & Jerry’s.”

One reporter asked if he was worried about losing conservative consumers. “I mean, that’s a pretty liberal agenda you’ve got there,” she suggested.

McCarthy was unflinching but acknowledged that not everyone may agree with his position. He then went on to smoothly suggest that the real topic should be how to bridge that divide through conversation. “Let’s have a dialogue, let’s have a discussion about it,” he countered.

“Might we alienate some people? Perhaps. But I think that’s what it takes to step in and be proactive as a business ...”

What’s interesting was how little the company’s ice cream products figured in the discussion. This was about a company’s successful social action platform, which just happened to be complemented by a very successful product. It was about the importance of CSR, to be a part of a community and to advocate for change as part of its defining success.

And the discussion about how to advocate for change was happening on mainstream TV.

Perhaps one of the reasons McCarthy seems so comfortable talking about social change is that many of Unilever’s CSR initiatives were either founded or implemented with his help. He is reportedly responsible for suggesting Hellmann’s Mayonnaise change its supply chain to include certified cage-free eggs. He also advocated for better living conditions for chickens in other supply chains and helped to create an organic snack brand that could support farms in underserved communities. And outside of his role in product marketing, he also helped to launch a men’s working group for gender equality at Unilever.

McCarthy’s first big goal, he says, is to “double the social impact” of Ben & Jerry’s. That’s a tall order for a company that has its roots in 35 countries and is known just as widely for its social action as for its ice cream.

But McCarthy maintains that activism is needed, particularly now, and particularly in the U.S., where “never before have we had a lot of issues bubbling to the surface.”

“I think business is at a big inflection point,” said McCarthy.

It will be interesting to see where McCarthy is able to take the effort to double social outreach and resolve intractable differences. Social values may be taking an even greater lead for the Ben & Jerry’s brand, but nothing is likely to smooth over feelings and forge consensus of viewpoints than a good bowl of old-fashioned ice cream.

Image credit: Ben Ramirez (Flickr)
Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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