Q&A with Ben & Jerry’s Social Mission Manager

Elif Ulun Asci on promoting the rights and dignity of refugees

Advocacy is at the bedrock of Ben & Jerry’s. The company has long been at the forefront of using business as a force for good and embedding social impact into its business structures. Since they launched in 1978 Ben & Jerry’s has used their platform to empower people and advocate for change across the globe. Our Editor-at-large, Natasha Randhawa, sat down with Elif Ulun Asci, Social Mission Manager at Ben & Jerry’s Europe.

In line with our May theme this interview delves into how Ben & Jerry’s is harnessing ‘people power’ to drive social change and redefine the role of businesses in today’s world.

It’s wonderful to have you with us, Elif. Ben & Jerry’s has a long history of social activism. How does the company decide which issues to champion, and are these causes different depending on region? 

Elif Ulun Asci

Ben & Jerry’s has a progressive, non-partisan social mission to advance human rights and dignity and support social and economic justice for historically marginalised communities. We choose our issue areas carefully, with regional focus areas that are approved by Ben & Jerry’s Board of Directors. In Europe, our current multi-year focus is on promoting the rights and dignity of refugees and people seeking asylum. In the United States, we’re focused on racial justice. In many other countries, and in particular Australia, our focus is on issues of climate justice.

Our activism strategy is deeply rooted in our company values, guided by a simple yet powerful question: ‘What are the major issues facing society and can we as an organisation help?’ rather than focusing on ‘what makes us look good?’ We work closely with activists, experts and NGO partners to identify those issues (within our focus areas) in each region and align our efforts with grassroots movements and community needs. 

The UP Collective programme sounds fascinating. Elif, you lead its co-creation initiative, working with refugee entrepreneurs to co-create a new ice cream flavour. How does this project empower displaced people?

In 2017, in collaboration with TERN (The Entrepreneurial Refugee Network), we launched the UP Collective, an entrepreneurship programme for people with refugee backgrounds in the UK and later in the Netherlands and France. Many graduates of the UP Collective programme have established businesses, spanning food, creative ventures, and social entrepreneurship, a testament to their innovation and resilience.

Our partnership with TERN led to an ice cream flavour, co-created with Ben & Jerry’s Flavour Gurus and eight entrepreneurs with refugee backgrounds. This co-creation opportunity provided UP Collective entrepreneurs with real-world business experience in product innovation, marketing, and communication, aligning with our social mission.

Through workshops and active involvement in the innovation process, entrepreneurs brought their diverse cultural perspectives and entrepreneurial mindsets into Sunny Honey Home, from flavour profiles to packaging design by an artist with a refugee background. This collaboration presents the transformative impact of co-creation and co-living. 

One of Ben & Jerry’s strengths is its reactiveness to current events — but standing by your values can spark controversy. What advice do you have for marketers looking to balance meaningful social impact with concerns from stakeholders? 

Ben & Jerry’s is a values-led business, so we lead with our values. What’s crucial for this work is the starting point. We don’t start by asking charities and NGOs how they can be in service to our brand. We ask how we can be of service to them. Our primary goal is to help people (our ice cream fans) take action in support of progressive social change. We are singularly focused on impact and movement building, NOT brand equity. That’s key.  

So, rather than focusing on what your stakeholders care about, prioritise being guided by your values and what you stand for. Instead of asking what you think your customers care about, ask if you have an opportunity to create meaningful social impact on an issue that is linked to your values and where you can ask your customers to take action. As our co-founder Ben Cohen says: ‘the strongest bond with your customers is over shared values’.

We’ve seen a recent decline in the purpose marketing movement, with customers fatigued by brands campaigning ill-fitting causes. Ben & Jerry’s have cultivated loyal community. What role does transparency and the integration of social justice in business practices play in maintaining this consumer loyalty?

Research like the Edelman Trust Barometer recently showed that customers want an ongoing relationship with the brands they choose. We work hard to communicate regularly with our customers on our activism and social mission initiatives. And our activism and social mission come directly from our values and long-term commitments.

We have great engagement from our fans when we post about our activism and social mission commitments on our social media. And we believe this is largely down to remaining authentic and connected to the movements we’re aiming to support.

We can understand why customers are fatigued and losing trust in brands who are pushing the limits of their purpose marketing by not being connected to their values or not being transparent. When you feel like a brand is making an issue all about them or trying to seek fame or clicks from an issue, that’s when people start to lose trust.

Our theme this month explores the relationship between organisations and the public. Why is rallying the collective power of consumers crucial for achieving genuine social impact through purpose marketing? What strategies do Ben & Jerry’s employ to empower consumers to be active participants in social mission efforts?

When we ask our NGO partners and the movements here in the UK and Europe about the role they want Ben & Jerry’s to play in refugee justice, they all say we can reach an audience that they can’t. And that is at the heart of our activism model. We harness the power of our world-class marketing function — our ice cream, our innovation and creativity and every touchpoint we have with our fans  — to invite people to take action and join movements. At all points in the process, we remain clear that activism is not a marketing exercise, and it is not done to drive brand equity.

We remain laser focused on the impact we are trying to create, using the digital and marketing expertise and tools we have.  

And lastly — could you share some of your favourite current Ben & Jerry’s initiatives, and how people can get involved?

For those passionate about supporting refugee justice, here are some initiatives led by our expert partners in alignment with our Social Mission: Our partner TERN has a special marketplace, Anqa Collective, for buying unique products directly from refugees, helping to grow their businesses. This is my go-to marketplace, especially when I am looking for unique gift options for loved ones. Additionally, Safe Passage is tirelessly advocating for safe routes for people seeking safety. I encourage everyone to support their campaign by signing up on their website.

Finally, music lovers, please join us for the Ben & Jerry’s Sundae’s In The Park Festival at Chiswick House & Gardens in London on Saturday, 27 July. You will have the opportunity to connect with our charity partners, who are dedicated to advocating for refugee justice. You can also meet fellow fans and indulge in free ice cream all day long!

All proceeds from ticket sales will directly support our charity partners in their important work for refugee rights.

Featured image: Ben & Jerry’s Sunny Honey Home

Natasha Randhawa, Editor-at-large at MediaCat Magazine

Tash joined the magazine as Editor-at-large at the start of 2023. Previously she headed comms for The Marketing Society (2018-2022). Now, as Editor-at-large, she travels around Southeast Asia, writing about culture, social impact, creativity and technology, and how these forces influence the marketing industry and wider business world.

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