Jerry Greenfield visited Indiana University Southeast on Tuesday.
A congenial middle-aged man with a mostly-gray beard and glasses, Greenfield could pass easily for an IUS faculty member. He is not.
Jerry Greenfield is a co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream. He spoke Tuesday evening to a crowd of students, faculty, and local business leaders. Chancellor Sandra Patterson-Randles, in her introduction, aptly described Ben & Jerry’s as “one of the least conventional” companies in modern U.S. history.
Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield met in middle school. According to Greenfield, they first encountered each other in seventh grade while running in P.E. class.
“We were the slowest, fattest kids,” said Greenfield. That encounter began a lifelong friendship and a business partnership that produced a wildly successful business that generates more than $200 million in annual revenues.
The initial investment was very small. The pair saved $8,000 and secured another $4,000 from a local bank. They were 26 years old.
For their ice cream parlor, they leased an abandoned gas station in Burlington, Vermont. They took a $5 correspondence course at Penn State to learn the art of making ice cream. The pair purchased a 50-gallon WWII vintage ice cream machine and began experimenting with different flavors.
In May, 1978 they opened for business.
Greenfield identified three factors that make Ben & Jerry’s unique: Great ice cream, great marketing, and an emphasis on social responsibility sets Ben & Jerry’s apart.
What makes the ice cream so good? More cream, less air, and bigger chunks produce the great flavor, according to Greenfield.
His partner, Ben Cohen, suffers from a decreased ability to smell which hampers his sense of taste. As a result, Cohen demanded more texture in the ice cream.
“It’s not easy to make ice cream with big chunks,” said Cohen. “That’s why nobody does it.” Greenfield relented to Cohen’s demand for big chunks and consumers approved.
Never afraid of failure, Ben & Jerry’s experimented with lots of flavors. “You’ve heard the saying many are called but few are chosen? We say many are cold, but few are frozen.”
Cohen, a creative mind, showed a tremendous knack for marketing from the beginning. In the winter of 1978, they tried original ideas to sell ice cream during the offseason. One of these promotions was called the “Penny off per Celsius Degree below Zero Winter Extravaganza.”
Customers received a one cent (per scoop) discount for every degree Celsius below zero. When that didn’t work, they began selling ice cream to Vermont retailers out of the back of a truck. Soon, they developed relationships with Boston and Connecticut distributors to peddle Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in groceries throughout the Northeast.
In the 1980’s, Greenfield and Cohen learned that a competitor, Hagen Dazs, was pressuring distributors to stop carrying Ben & Jerry’s. Rather than accept defeat, Cohen and Greenfield sued Hagen Dazs parent company Pillsbury for restraint of trade. Simultaneously, they launched a public relations campaign to shame Pillsbury.
The campaign slogan was “What’s The Doughboy Afraid of?” Customers were made aware of Pillsbury’s tactics through a phone and advertising campaign. Eventually, Hagen Dazs relented.
The third factor that differentiates Ben & Jerry’s is its commitment to social responsibility.
Greenfield discussed, at length, how corporations have usurped religion and government as the most powerful force in our society, today. Greenfield and Cohen believe that corporations have an obligation to use their powerful influence for more than producing profits.
The problem, Greenfield believes, is that corporations “only get what they measure.” Measuring profit is easy. Measuring social responsibility is a more thorny undertaking. “Profit measurement puts blinders” on management, Greenfield said.
As a result, they do not always see the social and environmental ramifications of their operations. Profit and social responsibility are not mutually exclusive, according to Greenfield. Ben & Jerry’s “focuses on those activities that make money AND have a positive impact on society,” he said.
In 2000, Unilever purchased Ben & Jerry’s from its public shareholders. I heard a trace of lament in Greenfield’s voice when he addressed the takeover.
Today, Cohen and Greenfield remain best friends. Both are still involved with the company. Greenfield’s current title with the company is “co-founder.” “I’m not involved in management. I have no responsibility and no authority,” Greenfield joked.
Clearly, however, the pair holds sway within the company.
Their current crusade is called “Get the Dough out of Politics.” “Get the Dough out of Politics” promotes a Constitutional Amendment that would keep corporate money out of U.S. elections.
About Justin Suer: Justin Suer, a former banker, is dean of the School of Business, Ivy Tech Community College.