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The Ben & Jerry’s Boycott – On Brand or a Major Misstep?

This blog is not taking a pro-Israel or pro-Palestine perspective – we are exploring the Ben & Jerry’s boycott from a brand strategy perspective.

On July 19, 2021, Ben & Jerry’s announced they would stop selling their products in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas occupied by Jewish settlements that are largely seen as illegal by the international community. News agencies around the world rushed in to comment on everything from the legalities to their perspective on whether this constituted anti-Semitism. Unilever, the parent company that owns Ben & Jerry’s, certainly has a headache on its hands – but to understand whether this is a strategic hit or miss for the brand, we need to look beyond international politics and think more about consumer behavior.

The Nike Effect

When Nike’s Colin Kaepernick campaign aired, legions of consumers burned their Nikes on social media and swore they would never buy Nike again. However, sales actually jumped 10 percent – approximately $847 million USD, exceeding even Nike’s expectations. With grocery stores in communities with large Jewish populations vowing to take Ben & Jerry’s off their shelves, will the brand see a similar net positive effect as the Kaepernick campaign?

IN SUMMARY, YES. BEN & JERRY’S CUSTOMER BASE IS LEFT-LEANING & EXPECT THE BRAND TO MIRROR THEIR VALUES

For the Ben & Jerry’s brand, the risk of taking such a stance has to be weighed against the risk of not living their brand mission. The brand is known for its strong positions on social justice and social responsibility initiatives. Being outspoken advocates is such a critical part of their brand DNA that their deal with Unilever stipulated the Ben & Jerry’s board would maintain autonomy over their social mission. For most Ben & Jerry’s fans, this is one of the things they know and value about the brand. In fact, some reports indicate that pressure from customers as well as BDS (Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions) activists may have contributed to the decision. In Israel, the brand is popular and will likely take a hit. However, the long-term risk to the Ben & Jerry’s brand appears low. Those calling the brand anti-Semitic may well be the equivalent of the Nike critics – a PR side effect that doesn’t negatively impact sales and may even have some positive outcomes.

Unilever is Stuck in the Middle

For Unilever, however, the issue is more complicated. As a company with many brands with a broad consumer base, wading into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is most certainly undesirable. The Israeli government is requesting that US states with anti-BDS laws take action against Unilever as it did when Airbnb pulled out of settlements, and it looks as though some states are likely to comply. On the legal front it looks sticky for Unilever, but how that will impact the bottom line in the meantime depends less on the courts and more on popular opinion.

Most Consumers are Moderate

Many consumers may have an opinion about the Israeli-Palestine conflict. The question is whether those opinions are strong enough for them to take action. If we look at the political leanings of most Americans, the vast majority are far more moderate than social media echo-chambers suggest. To go to the trouble of researching Unilever’s many brands and actively avoid them is more than the average consumer is likely to do. Retailer responses will depend largely on the individual retailer’s customer base, meaning the most likely to take action will be brands that operate in Jewish communities – and in all likelihood, it would be the Ben & Jerry’s brand bearing the brunt of any boycott. In spite of the media attention today, tomorrow another story will come along. After all, our collective attention span has never been shorter.

The Verdict

When it comes to how the situation impacts consumer perception of the Unilever brand, the question is whether it’s even on their radar. Ardent Ben & Jerry’s fans will remain so. A small but vocal pro-Israel group may try to sway consumers to their cause… but it will be hard to get people hot and bothered about ice cream. Unilever will have legal challenges to address, but most consumers will keep on buying their Chunky Monkey and Cherry Garcia.