OPINION: Mills on ... Ben & Jerry's

Like all of us, I suppose, I have a strong set of brand prejudices. By prejudices, of course, I mean the things I love to hate, often for reasons that don't stand up in the cold light of day. It may be unfair but what's the point of a prejudice if it isn't a) violently held and b) irrational?

One of the things I really loathe is that oxymoron, corporate cool, usually most visible in a brand's advertising. You probably know what I mean - it's when a mass brand or wannabe mass brand annexes the language, attitude and tone of a small niche brand in order to portray itself as being hip, cool, matey and all that stuff. Secretly though, you know that it's all the product of some giant MBA-dominated corporate infrastructure cranking out five-year plans for world domination with all the soul and passion you'd find among the occupants of a Manchester United corporate box. You probably know the names of the likely suspects: Gap, Benetton, Starbucks, parts of the Virgin empire and Nike.

The guilty set also includes one-time genuinely interesting and different brands that grow from niches into something mass market, often the result of a takeover by a giant corporation that wants a bit of that particular action or to remove a thorn from its side. In the process, they lose the thing that made them special, but the paradox is that they try all the harder to hang on to it and often focus their advertising around it.

Which brings us nicely to this week's particular subject, a new campaign by Fallon for Ben & Jerry's. There's probably no better example of the latter type of operation than B&J's. Twenty-five years ago, two Vermont natives, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, accidentally fell into making ice-cream. The pair looked like Grateful Dead roadies and ran their company in a similar vein: a strong commitment to ethics, a pledge to give 7.5 per cent of profits to charity, a set of quirky, hippie-style products (among them a Cherry Garcia flavour named after the chief Grateful Dead hippie), and an idiosyncratic style of management which included "joy patrol staff who would dress up like Elvis and roam the shopfloor cheering up fellow workers.

Of course, it was a roaring success, B&J's went public and at one stage had 40 per cent of the US premium ice-cream market. No wonder Management Today dubbed the pair the "Tutti-Frutti Capitalists". And now, after a $300 million deal in 1999, it's owned by Unilever (as if it didn't make enough ice-cream already), a company as different from B&J's as, say, S Club 7 is from the Dead.

And the trouble is I don't hate the ads. I thought I would, but I actually like them. Obviously the hippie schtick evident in the art direction and typography, while it reflects a genuine B&J's quality, isn't in the Unilever DNA, but I can forgive and forget that. Better still, the ads simply sell a product truth, but in an engaging and utterly unforced way.

The clever bit is in the idea that some batches have too much cherry, which allows us to intuit that B&J's doesn't practice portion control. My impression of multinational ice-cream manufacturing (ie Unilever) is that portion control rules everything, including profit margins. Stick a milligram too much chocolate or cream in and, hey, the entire business plan is shot to pieces. But not B&J's, where if the workers (and the management) are stoned out of their minds, everybody gets more cherry and to hell with margins.

It's romantic nonsense, of course, but it's how I'd like to imagine it still is at B&J's, Unilever takeover or not. In their own way, these ads suggest that the spirit of B&J's hasn't been killed by the dead hand of Unileverisation. It may not sound like much of an achievement, but of such little victories are triumphs made and prejudices overturned.

Dead cert for a Pencil? Something shiny in art direction, perhaps.
File under ... B for better than it could have been.
What would the chairman's wife say? It's not Wall's, is it?

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