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To Thine Own Self Be True

Many organizations struggle to maintain a cohesive and differentiated brand as they grow. Particularly as new people come in and start to replace the founding team members, the vision for how the company will provide customers with unique and valuable products and/or services can become diluted or lost. Great brands always keep that vision in mind – from recruiting and onboarding new employees to maintaining the quality of their work to truly living the values they espouse on their websites. That’s all well and good for a small shop, but how do you hold on to the soul of your organization as you expand across the country or even the globe? Let’s take a look at Ben & Jerry’s.

As they mention on their website, Ben & Jerry’s was founded in 1978 by two friends, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, as a small ice cream shop in a renovated gas station in Burlington, Vermont. Today their ice cream is sold in 25 countries around the globe at premium prices and has a devoted fan base. You would think that with such exponential growth, an acquisition by a huge multinational conglomerate (Unilever), and the end of any direct involvement from the company’s two founders, that the Ben & Jerry’s brand would have become very “vanilla” by this point. This couldn’t be further from the truth. As big as the company and the brand have become, Ben & Jerry’s still acts and feels like the brand of a small-town Vermont ice cream parlor run by best-friends – a little bit goofy, heavily involved in social activism, and still very concerned that their ice cream is delicious.

How do they do it? One part is their Board of Directors, independent from the parent company, that maintains veto power on any changes in the ice cream recipes to ensure they maintain their high-quality. This is the core of their business, and so if the taste of the ice cream were to suffer, the reputation of the brand would suffer. But the company’s commitment to its foundations is more than a love of good fudge covered pretzels and chunks of peanut butter. Ben & Jerry’s board is also responsible for ensuring the company remains committed to ethical and sustainable business practices, contributing to worthy causes such as the Children’s Defense Fund, and advocating for the social issues they believe in such as supporting gay marriage, reducing carbon emissions, and reducing the impact of large donors in political campaigns. They are also committed to sharing the company’s success with employees and partners. The company used to have a rule capping the pay of their executive team at no more than 5 times that of the lowest paid employee, and while that has since been scrapped, on its website the company still claims to be committed to providing living wages to all employees and sourcing Fairtrade ingredients for all of its products.

It’s not too late for brands that have lost their way and are no longer sure what they stand for. Research and strategic planning can help organizations find and articulate the most differentiating attributes that make up their unique value, but the challenge is to maintain commitment to that vision throughout every aspect of the business.

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