Brands should enlist specially dedicated activism managers to help them deliver tangible social change, according to Ben & Jerry’s global head of activism Christopher Miller.
In a recent interview, Miller stressed that one strategic aim the ice cream firm regards as a core mission is to help dismantle white supremacy: a goal that has already led the brand to join various campaigns and make official representations to arms of the US government.
Miller stressed that these efforts are all generated in house. “We do not work with agency partners on this sort of work,” he said. “This is not a marketing exercise. What makes this work at Ben & Jerry’s is that we marry someone that has my experience and background – I’ve worked in civil society policy and advocacy, I don’t have an MBA and I’ve never been a brand manager – with our unique approach to campaigning … We’ll work with agencies to design images or create the look and feel of the work. But not on strategy.” (The Drum, 23 June 2020)
Just two days after the interview emerged, Ben & Jerry’s validated Miller’s point by announcing that it has joined the #StopHateForProfit campaign and pulled its paid advertising from Facebook, urging the social network “to stop its platform from being used to spread and amplify racism and hate”. In the process, the firm has aligned itself with outdoor brands and earlier campaign members Patagonia, The North Face and REI. (BBC News, 24 June 2020)
In Miller’s view, connecting with consumers’ principles is not enough. “The strongest bond you can create with your customers is a shared sense of value,” he argued, “but that's not why we do this. Our two co-founders were counterculture progressives that pioneered an approach to business that attempted to use it to drive impact and advance progressive social change. It’s also true that for 42 years without fail we have grown the business year over year after it was started from a dilapidated gas station in Vermont.
“We’re in 40 countries globally now and one of the most recognised ice cream brands on the planet, but I believe – and I think my colleagues do too – that part of that success has been our willingness as a company to do more than just selling ice cream. So should every brand have an activism manager – why not?”
Is Miller correct in his assessment? Should firms view their work on corporate social responsibility (CSR) as full-fledged activism in order to enhance its impact, and hire relevant leadership figures to manage it?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “In addition to their role as providers of products and services, organisations are very big customers. And the bigger the organisation, the more important a customer it is. So the idea of coordinating that ‘buying power’ – of using it to campaign in a way that can be recognised as activism – is highly attractive. Especially to brands such as Ben & Jerry’s that pride themselves on their ethical approach to business. So one can understand why this idea of an activism manager is so compelling.
“However,” she points out, “that makes it all the more important for any organisation with this type of outlook to remember that it is delivering products and services in line with its business model – and that its core competency is not activism.”
She explains: “It’s hugely encouraging to see a broad recognition among firms that CSR is about so much more than handing out donations. It’s also great to see companies integrating values-driven, charitable work into their business structures as bona-fide corporate divisions – as in the case of US telecoms firm Nextiva [Inc.com, 8 August 2018]. But if you have a senior figure whose job is activism, I worry that they may start delivering on an agenda that’s different to that of the broader organisation.”
Cooper notes: “One can see where any divergence of that nature would lead to conflict. So what we must ask ourselves as leaders is, do we really want conflicts that arise from within our own organisations? When we turn to the current wave of advertisers pulling away from Facebook, it’s the actions that count. As I said, big organisations are important customers. As a stakeholder, you have a voice – so use that power to target the areas where you think it will have the greatest impact.”
She adds: “We at the Institute have also now withdrawn our advertising from Facebook in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Similarly, Patagonia, The North Face and REI are using their power for good – but within the context of their overarching business models. The crucial point that these organisations are making is, you don’t have to advertise on Facebook – you can make a terrific statement by not doing so, and advertising somewhere else instead. And that is what Facebook will pay attention to.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on social responsibility
Image of Ben & Jerry’s ‘Peace Love & Ice cream’ signage courtesy of Wangkun Jia, via Shutterstock