“Ben & Jerry’s is an indulgent dessert that should be eaten in moderation. You should not be replacing more than one meal a day with ice cream. We do not consider a pint or tub of ice cream to be a single serving.” Jerry Greenfield, one of the founders of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.
The Smashingly Events team was lucky enough to be in Stowe, Vermont a few weeks ago and stopped at Ben & Jerry’s ice cream’s original factory. I was floored by the success of this company and wanted to do additional research on how this company, started by two junior high school friends became one of the most recognizable ice cream companies in the world. I was also interested in finding what steps they took in the success of their business and how we can apply it to our events business.
Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield met in junior high school. At their own admission, they were both “fat, dumpy kids growing up” and, as Jerry has said, “we both liked to eat.” Ben said they met during junior high gym class when Jerry fainted. They became fast friends.
If Jerry had gotten into medical school, we wouldn’t have that great ice cream! Flash forward several years. Ben dropped out of college and was trying to become a potter and Jerry had finished college and was trying to get into medical school. There were a few problems with their plans. No one wanted to buy Ben’s pottery and Jerry couldn’t get into medical school. Jerry was working as a lab technician and Ben was delivering pottery wheels and working as a taxi driver. They were going nowhere fast and decided to start a business together.
Ben & Jerry’s could have been a bagel business! Because of their love of food, they decided to investigate businesses around food. They wanted to start a bagel business, but the equipment was too expensive. Making ice cream was cheaper, so they decided to start an ice cream business. They took a $5 correspondence course from Penn State (they split the fee, and the tests were open book, so they passed with flying colors!) on making ice cream.
Their first Ben & Jerry’s store was located in Burlington, Vermont in 1978 in an old abandoned gas station. Why Vermont? Both Ben and Jerry were 26 years old. They were looking for a rural college town. The warm weather spots were taken and were already inundated with ice cream shops. Burlington, Vermont, a rural college town did not have a homemade ice cream shop. They set up shop in a dilapidated old gas station across the street from the Burlington City Hall. The roof was caving in and Ben repaired the roof himself to get things going. They started the business with $12,000 ($4000 from Ben, $4000 from Jerry and the balance from a bank).
The gas station had a five-gallon freezer! They had movie nights in the summer and people would come to the gas station where they played the movie on the outside wall and families would come with blankets and would eat ice cream during the movie. On their one year anniversary in 1979, they started a tradition that continues today, a free scoop day.
Why the name Ben & Jerry’s? They settled on the name Ben & Jerry’s after going through names like Josephine’s Flying Machine (based on an old-time song to bring out the old fashioned homemade ice cream theme) and Grandma’s. It was Jerry who said we should name it after them. They started with Jerry & Ben’s but it didn’t flow off the tongue like Ben & Jerry’s. They named Jerry the company president because his name came second!
Why the big chunks in the ice cream? Did you know that Ben has anosmia, which essentially means he lacks the ability to distinguish various smells. Ben insisted on placing large chunks of different ingredients in the ice cream so that the ice cream would be more of a taste experience. Ben created all of the early flavors of ice cream. Jerry has never created a flavor. They named their ice cream after pop culture influences (Cherry Garcia after the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia). They have a flavor graveyard at the Stowe, Vermont factory location. It is a real graveyard. Hilarious and a stroke of beautiful marketing!
They knew very little about running a business. They admitted that they learned what they knew in the early days from the brochures that were issued from the Small Business Administration. They weren’t making money at first because their scoops were too big and they couldn’t bring themselves to reduce the scoop size. They also weren’t making as much money as they hoped in the summer and of course, people reduced the amount of ice cream they ate in the cold Vermont winters. They decided they might be able to make additional cash by selling tubs of ice cream. Ben tells the story of how he was transporting the tubs of ice cream in the back of his station wagon in an insulated box that would only hold 16 tubs. He was racing around town trying to sell tubs to restaurants before they melted. They decided to stop at some of the smaller “mom and pop” grocery stores along the way to the restaurants and that’s how they fell into that early distribution method.
How did the company become a global brand? Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough was the start of a global brand according to their founders. Jerry indicated that they used to make chocolate chip cookies on site at the ice cream store and one day, the cookie baker said why don’t we add my dough to the ice cream? This really captured people’s attention. Jerry considers it one of the things that happened that helped grow their global brand.
They bought an ice-cream truck called the Cowmobile to hit the road and spread the ice cream tasting across the nation. Things were going well until it caught on fire and burned to the ground in Cleveland!
What is the Dough Boy Afraid of? In 1984, Haagen-Dazs ice cream (owned by Pillsbury) tried to shut down Ben & Jerry’s. Pillsbury went to their distributers and told them if they continued to carry Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, they would stop providing Pillsbury products for them to distribute. Seeing this as the classic David & Goliath story, Ben and Jerry decided to create a campaign called, “What’s the Doughboy Afraid of?” They couldn’t afford to sue Pillsbury so they decided to take it to the people. They took out signs on buses and put an 800 number on all of their pints. If customers called that number they heard a recording of Ben & Jerry explaining what was happening and if the customer wanted to leave their address, they got a bumper sticker with the, What’s the Doughboy Afraid of? Customers called Pillsbury and it got national attention on the news and eventually, Pillsbury was forced to back off. Classic!
The company was purchased by Unilever in 2000. Ben and Jerry’s has a separate Board of Directors which include the original company founders.
Why is the Ben & Jerry’s story a success story? Was it by accident? Or was it a set of perfect circumstances? As I start our Smashingly Event business, I look to the success stories for lessons I can learn. Here is what I take from Ben & Jerry’s:
1.Have a Passion for What You Are Doing! “Success consists of going from failure to failure and never losing enthusiasm.” (Sir Winston Churchill) Ben & Jerry’s went through a lot of challenges over the years and never gave up. I have a sense that they really enjoyed what they were doing, even when (maybe especially when) they weren’t making any money. We have that enthusiasm here at Smashingly Events. We are just starting out and people are starting to take notice, give us events to plan and our enthusiasm is contagious. We love what we are doing and when you have a passion for something, failure is not an option.
2. Be Creative – Ben & Jerry’s marketing strategy is epic. From the names of the ice cream which followed the pop culture of their original baby-boomer audience, to the Cowmobile and the colorful store interiors painted with the cow motifs. In 1987, after the stock market crashed on that dark Monday, Ben & Jerry’s showed up on Wall Street scooping new ice cream flavors called, “Economic Crunch” and “That’s Life.” GENIUS! When we took the tour in Stowe of their original factory, the presentation was moooo-tastic.
3. Ride the Social Media Wave. In 1978, we didn’t have Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. In those days, they used word of mouth media. The movie nights, the community projects and the free scoops once a year are all examples of things that they did in the early years to get the word out. The original Cowmobile, which unfortunately burned to the ground in Cleveland, was an example of marketing nationwide. The, “What’s the Doughboy Afraid of?” – David & Goliath play on the Haagan-Dazs threat was genius. Today, of course, it is easier to reach a national audience through the social media drumroll. However, I love the stories of the early days and how companies really had to have a grass roots effort to grow their business.
4. Have a sense of Social Responsibility – “Peace, Love & Ice Cream” is the Ben & Jerry’s motto. One of Ben Cohen’s quotes says it all. “There is a spiritual aspect to our lives…when we give we receive, when a business does something good for somebody, that somebody feels good about them.” Both Ben and Jerry have stood for a number of causes over the years and they are very active politically. They stood for their beliefs despite the fact that some may not agree with them and they may lose customers because of it. While I haven’t always agreed with their stances, I love their dedication and sense of giving back. They talk the talk and walk the walk. We believe that is true at Smashingly Events as well. We volunteering to help with a number of non-profit events in order to give back. I love to try and live by this beautiful quote, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” Sir Winston Churchill.
5. Produce a Quality Product – Ben & Jerry’s subsidized local farmers to produce milk/cream without growth hormones. They produce a top quality product. As an event planner, what is your product? How are you going to distinguish yourself from others in the business? For Smashingly Events, I believe that given our business background, we understand how to brand a corporate event, we understand budgets and how to run a business and we can bring a level of expertise and professionalism that perhaps individuals without a business background cannot bring to the table.
6. Know your audience. Ben & Jerry’s focused on high end clientele that love a great quality ice cream. As an event planner, what audience are you focused on? Corporate? Small business? Large? Social? Weddings? Non-Profits?
7. Never, never, never give up! (Sir Winston Churchill) When people aren’t responding to you and your business isn’t growing as fast as you would like, keep in mind that it all begins with a “snowflake.” It only takes one corporation, one couple, one non-profit to give you a chance to shine in your event planning business. When you get that opportunity, you had better SHINE! Take advantage of that opportunity and show your stuff.