What Ben and Jerry’s Can Teach Professional Marketers About Branding

ben and jerrys

If there’s one thing you can say about the “Ben and Jerry’s” brand, it’s that it has personality.  I spent a day last week touring their Waterbury, Vermont factory and just watching their employees interact with the customers.  I did this because I wanted to get a sense of what I could learn about the company by simply observing and listening in to the conversations and watching the interactions of everyone there.

In the interest of full disclosure, you need to know that I was actually vacationing in Vermont and that I couldn’t bring myself to leave the state without feeding a few of my secret addictions; ice cream, factory tours and watching people.

I came away from this experience with a few insights you might enjoy:

  1. An authentic brand can make up for lack of “brilliance.” Sometimes it can be hard to justify “brand building” research or strategies to management because it isn’t as easy to quantify brand equity as it is to quantify revenue and profitability.  Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield proved that building an authentic brand infused with personality can create profits even if you’re not a great business person.  In the early days they actually closed the store and put a sign up that said “We’re closed because we’re trying to figure out what’s going on.”   If you’re working on developing your brand, think about doing internal research first.  Start with basic cultural observation and notice what your organization does naturally.  Are you naturally neat-freaks, detail oriented,  fun loving?  Note all of your observations or invite a third party to live in your company for a while and see what they say.  Now test those observations internally and see what comes out of it.  Your brand cannot be authentic if it doesn’t come from what you already do.
  2. If it’s not fun why do it. Ben and Jerry may not have been “professional marketers,” but they understood a clear secret to a successful and authentic brand was to have fun.  Every element of their brand is infused with fun; the names of the ice creams are fun, the facility is painted in fun colors, the employees are having fun.  Fun is an integral ingredient to any successful brand.  Of course “fun” doesn’t look the same for every company out there.  What does “fun” look like for you and your customers?  Don’t think that because you’re in a technical or manufacturing organization that “fun” can’t be an element of your business.  Remember, machines don’t make buying decisions, people make decisions.  People would rather do business with a company that’s fun to work with.  In what ways can you make your interactions with customer fun?  In what ways can the ordering process be fun?  In what ways can you make problem solving and brainstorming customer solutions fun?  Look for interesting ways to bring fun into all of your processes.
  3. Don’t lie down, do something! Perhaps the best insight I got out of the Ben and Jerry’s experience was how important it is to take action and do something.  How many times have we looked at our customer satisfaction scores and felt completely powerless to do something differently or to make a change in a product or process?  The key to building your brand is to take action.  Don’t look at your data as a grade or evalutation.  Data is data.  We are the ones who make it mean something.  So make it mean “opportunity.”  Instead of interpreting results as “good or bad” analyze your results from the perspective of a detective.  Look for areas of competitive advantage.

Building a solid profitable brand is not hard work.  It can actually be a tremendous amount of fun.  But for some reason, many businesses have decided that fun isn’t allowed to be part of the equation, that fun is a waste of money.  The truth is that creating a brand that is a function of quantitative data and internal navel-gazing is the biggest waste of time and marketing dollars.  Being something that you’re not is an expensive marketing proposition.  It takes more money to constantly communicate and create messages and train people to say things that don’t come naturally.  With the increased use of social media and transparency no brand can afford to be fake.

So the next time you’re struggling with brand building activities, run to your local supermarket, grab a pint of Ben and Jerry’s in your favorite flavor,  share it with a few collegues and think about one thing you can do to have fun with your brand — then DO IT.