I6. Ben & Jerry’s: The Anti-McDonald?

 

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield consciously set out with a plan for a non-rationalized business. The "new corporate concept" is basically an ethos they maintain that enabled a non-rationalized means of organization. Examples of the non-rational character of the business are abundant in their early history.

 

For instance, Fred ‘Chico’ Lager, former CEO of Ben & Jerry’s and author of Ben & Jerry’s: The Inside Scoop, offers this quote by Caryl Stewart, who was subletting to them the gas station that was to become their very first scoop shop: "They had connected with their customers, who felt like they were an integral part of what was happening, not merely a source of revenue to some faceless businessmen". A piano player, Don Rose, offered his services for 2-3 hours every day (except on weekends when he would spend most of his day there!) for no recompense other than free food and ice cream. They celebrated their first year of business with a Free Cone Day: "Giving away ice cream came to them naturally, and they did it without a premeditated calculation as to what the payback might be down the road. They truly believed that the joy was in the journey, and were determined to seize upon every opportunity to have fun that came their way" (1994:36; my emphasis).

 

This was hardly a "dehumanizing" start to their operations. With regard to the rationality of finances and money-management, Cohen was quite relaxed. In their second year, Cohen went on the road to start selling pints of their ice cream to local markets. When he was out, "Ben would put the money or check he collected together with the invoice, crumple them up together into a ball, and then shove the wad into his pocket. When he got back to the plant, he’d take all the wads of paper and put them in a bag that Jerry would drop off at [the bookkeeper’s] house the next day" (1994: 44). Eventually, Cohen and Greenfield had to deal with the "outside" world of business management. For instance, when the ice cream was first offered to the markets of Boston, they wanted to boost sales with a television ad:

 

Altman & Manley, a small Boston ad agency, was hired to produce some ten-second spots. They featured a life-size reproduction of the pint lid, with an opening in the middle so that Ben & Jerry would be ‘live on the lid’. After shooting the four ads that the agency had written, Ben said he had one more that he wanted to shoot. He called the spot ‘Cheap’. It went like this:

 

‘Hi, I’m Ben.’

‘And I’m Jerry.’

‘We may not have enough money for a thirty-second TV spot, but we sure make some of the best ice cream you ever tasted.’

 

And that was it. Ben decided that of all the spots, he liked ‘Cheap’ the best, and that was the only one he was going to use. The ad was scheduled to run exactly 132 times over a two-month period, an average of just over two times per day. (By way of comparison, McDonald’s typically runs thirty full- or half-minute TV spots every day, in every major market in the country (Lager, 1994: 87).

 

 

While the impact of the commercial was negligible ("The odds of someone flipping on his TV and seeing one of our spots…were remote"), this honest appeal simply to the quality of the product they were advertising went against the traditional sales pitch of the medium that emphasizes glamour and chicanery. The no-frills, down-to-earth style became a basic element of Ben & Jerry’s company culture and it is evident in much of the discourse that has taken place between their business and more mainstream business interests. Take, for example, Ben & Jerry’s various stock offerings. The first time they offered stock (in order to raise money for a new manufacturing facility), it was to the citizens of Vermont, the state in which they resided. "The idea of an in-state stock offering", recalls Chico Lager, "was a natural extension of the philosophy that Ben had espoused on the poster announcing the very first Free Cone Day - ‘Business has a responsibility to give back to the community from which it draws its support’. Cohen’s idea was for the company to be owned by the same people who had lined up for scoops of ice cream at the gas station [i.e. the first scoop shop]". The unconventionality of that idea was seen in the reaction the bankers gave upon hearing about the stock offering:

 

The bankers said Ben’s proposal to sell stock only to Vermonters was ‘naive and impractical’. To make the offering as widely affordable as possible, Ben was suggesting that the minimum investment be kept very low, somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred dollars. ‘You can’t raise three quarter of a million dollars in hundred-dollar increments,’ one banker told us. Everyone politely suggested that venture capital was the way to go…Selling a large chunk of the business to a venture capitalist didn’t appeal to Ben at all…His conviction was that we were holding the business in trust, and that we should give the people who had supported the company from its earliest days the first opportunity to profit from our success (Lager, 1994: 90-91).

 

The stock brokers they dealt with gave a reaction similar to the bankers: "Our inability to interest a brokerage firm in underwriting the offering didn’t dissuade Ben. [The company’s lawyer continued to] pursue various underwriters. The responses he received were no different from those we’d been hearing all along" (Lager, 1994: 93). But Cohen and Greenfield continued with the offering, despite the warnings of the bankers and brokers. And they were indeed successful in raising the money for the new plant.

 

Their second stock offering, unlike the first, was not statewide, but national, and it was monitored by the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC). Although the market for their stock was now substantially larger,

 

we were still determined to put our personal stamp on it. Ben proposed the ‘Get a Scoop of the Action’ slogan…putting it on pints [of ice cream] with an 800 number so that our customers could get a prospectus. The underwriters, convinced that the SEC would never allow it, didn’t object, but when it somehow got approved, they started to hedge.

 

‘You can’t use that slogan,’ the president of [their underwriting firm] finally told Ben in a conference call. ‘It maligns the integrity of the whole stock market and makes it seem too much like gambling’.

 

‘I thought that’s what it was’ Ben replied simply. The line went silent while the bankers, I imagine, got up off the floor and retook their seats (Lager, 1994: 123).

 

Cohen’s willingness to "malign the integrity of the stock market" demonstrates his willingness to fly in the face of traditional corporate culture, of which the stock market holds gigantic significance. A similar example fully emphasizes the "non-rational" character of Cohen’s business philosophy and his willingness to express it to the public. This is an unedited conversation taken from an interview with The Wall Street Transcript:

TWST: Do you believe you can attain a 15-percent increase in earnings each year over the next five years?

Ben: I got no idea.

TWST: Umm-hmm. What do you believe your capital spending will be each year over the next five years?

Ben: I don’t have any idea as to that either.

TWST: I see. How do you react to the way the stock market has been treating you in general and vis--vis other companies in your line?

Ben: I think the stock market goes up and down, unrelated to how a company is doing. I never expected it to be otherwise. I anticipate that it will continue to go up and down, based solely on rumor and whatever sort of market manipulation those people who like to manipulate the market can accomplish.

TWST: What do you have for hobbies?

Ben: Hobbies. Let me think. Eating mostly. Ping-Pong.

TWST: Huh?

Ben: Ping-Pong.

(Lager, 1994: 125)

 

 

This kind of irreverence for traditionally "rational" market economics is what the down-to-earth style of Ben & Jerry’s embodies. But, despite this ‘nose-thumbing’ attitude toward traditions of procedure and bureaucracy, the "new corporate concept" has gained respectability, even though it is not based on the traditional nomothetic notion that natural laws of economics exist and are both visible and manipulable. For Ben Cohen markets are indeed easily manipulable, but not by virtue of the laws that seem to be associated with them. Rather, the manipulation of markets is seen by Cohen as a function of the position one holds (and the power that accompanies it) in the rationalized, bureaucratic organization of the economic and political realms. It is how the individual handles such power that constitutes the workings of the market. Rather than behaving in formally programmed ways that ignore individual circumstance and opportunity, they have chosen to use the power position they have gained through their increasing notoriety and economic leverage to manipulate the market toward their interpretation of the social good, with conscience as their motive. This is what the third part of their mission statement addresses and this is what the following section will describe.

 

Next Section - From Ice Cream Socials to Social Responsibility

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