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A political scoop

12 August 2020

By Henry Taylor, Executive

Ice cream brand Ben & Jerry’s – owned by Domestos to Badedas consumer goods giant Unilever – has placed itself at the centre of a political dispute this week after it tweeted criticising Home Secretary, Priti Patel over the government’s approach to migrants crossing the Channel. Uncharacteristically, her department has hit back, with a Home Office source branding Ben & Jerry’s ‘overpriced junk food’.

Brands have generally been reluctant to get drawn into political issues, fearing alienating their key audiences. However, in an age when brands are increasingly expected to have a clear social purpose, the link between social issues and politics cannot be ignored. So when should brands get political, and how can they do it successfully?

The takeaway from the Ben & Jerry’s situation is not that brands should rush into overtly political disputes. To do so without the right positioning is likely to do more harm than good and risks attracting accusations of hypocrisy and opportunism (commentators have pointed out that Ben and Jerry’s itself has been accused of enabling migrant conditions “close to slavery” and taken to task by the Migrant Justice campaign).  In order to comment effectively on political issues, brands must first establish – and communicate – a clear social purpose that can provide a foundation for engagement on potentially controversial issues.

However, Ben & Jerry’s is a example of a brand that has built social purpose into its DNA, with a long track record of social activism. This has enabled more overtly political messaging – it has even released special flavours of ice cream in the US in support of former presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, for example.

It’s also important to pick your battles. If you’re going to get political, it’s crucial to understand the views of your target audiences and to read the mood of the country. Weighing in on an issue in a way that goes against the views of your target market carries significant risks. This is especially true in an age when younger consumers are openly willing to avoid brands that don’t reflect their values.

Therefore, while migrant crossings presumably aren’t a directly relevant issue for the ice cream industry, Ben & Jerry’s clearly feels that its predominantly young target market is fairly united on the subject. The company’s tweets have been widely shared and have drawn praise from those who feel the brand is articulating an important social message.

For brands that can successfully communicate a clear social purpose and have a deep understanding of their target audiences, engaging publicly on political issues can be a highly effective way of enhancing ESG credentials while building goodwill among the public. However, it’s a high-risk move, so having the right strategy is crucial to pulling it off successfully.

But with much of the country still sweltering as our August heatwave continues… whether deliberate or not it’s got us talking about their name.  Anyone got a wafer?