Ben & Jerry’s CEO on why too much market research can cause ‘mediocrity’


ben and jerryBen & Jerry’s CEO Matthew McCarthy has been in his role for a little more than a year but, from side-stepping research to prioritising activism, he is fully embracing the different ways the ice cream maker does business.

McCarthy has spent 22 years at Unilever working his way up the business holding roles such as vice-president of food in North America and senior director of deodorants and men’s grooming. However, he admits the ice cream brand serves as a stark contrast to all his previous roles.

He tells Marketing Week: “We are trying to encourage each other to be different. We gravitate towards the odd and unique and that is one of the most important ways we operationalise our entrepreneurial [spirit].”

This entrepreneurial spirit began with the founders, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, who started the brand in 1978 in Vermont. Its growth soon attracted attention and ice cream business was bought by Unilever in 2000.

However, the founders are still involved in the business and provide support to McCarthy where needed.

“Every time I am with Ben and Jerry I am reminded how fortunate we are that we still have [them] supporting us and also our values. They have very strong values,” he says.

“We try to keep that entrepreneurial spirit all the time because we never want to feel like a big company or a tired old company.”

That spirit has sometimes meant taking a different approach to other brands at Unilever. For example, while McCarthy sees the value of market research he believes it can seem make brands “mediocre”.

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“Earlier in my career we would test things and let consumers tell us what they want. While that is a helpful tool, it can also push your ideas and products towards mediocrity and pleasing everybody,” he states.

“If you did your research it might say what we need is more chocolate, vanilla and strawberry, but at Ben & Jerry’s we try to come up with wacky concoctions that make people go ‘wow I didn’t think that was going to work’.”

A mass market disruptor

By not relying too heavily on consumer research, Ben & Jerry’s hopes to provide the “freedom” for research and development teams to come up with  new “wacky” flavours. This, says McCarthy, is key to standing out in a competitive market.

The product development teams work with chefs – dubbed “flavour gurus” – to come up with flavours that are then put to market or tested on a small group of Ben & Jerry’s fans.

McCarthy maintains that despite Ben & Jerry’s being a household brand sold in 35 countries, the business is still a disruptor.

“While we have been in the UK and US for some time, there are  other parts of the world that we have only recently entered – like South Korea this year,” he explains. “That growth helps keep us on our toes.”

That, says McCarthy, is key amid growing competition in the premium ice cream sector. As non-dairy and low-calorie ice cream options experience fast growth, Ben & Jerry’s is facing growing competition.

He says: “The gourmet part of the market, which Ben & Jerry’s helped to pioneer and grow, is where it is most competitive. It’s exciting because people are looking for higher quality products, but also it is obviously harder.”

Being an activist brand

Ben & Jerry’s has long stood out as a brand with values, but as more companies talk about purpose, is he concerned the ice cream brand will no longer be as relevant? Actually it is quite the opposite.

“I don’t want us to be alone. I want all businesses to talk about purpose and I want us to stand out because of what we do not because of what other people don’t do,” he explains.

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The brand is currently running a campaign – ‘Cone Together’ – that focuses on the refugee crisis in Europe. Launching across the content and working with NGOs in the UK, Germany and Spain, the aim is “to put pressure on our leaders to take more action” around welcoming migrants.

The brand started focusing its communications on migrant rights three years ago and campaigning for the right to work, but this latest initiative marks Ben & Jerry’s biggest push yet.

McCarthy has some advice for brands looking to do the same. Work with people who know more. “The key is to work closely with NGOs, they are a key part of how we do what we do. They are the experts, plus grassroots groups,” he advises.

We try to keep that entrepreneurial spirit all the time because we never want to feel like a big company or a tired old company

The focus on activism is another way that Ben & Jerry’s differs from previous brands McCarthy has worked on.

“Earlier on in my career, a position that could be seen as something controversial or political or polarising was seen as something that businesses should not do,” he recalls.

“For too long, and sometimes today for too many businesses, activism is seen as ‘don’t go there, don’t touch it’ and that’s a big miss.”

While brands are more willing to take a stand now, McCarthy is quick to point out that activism must play “an essential role in the architecture of your brand”.

He explains: “What you do as a business, what your teammates do, is your authenticity. It’s not the great videos you have your ad agency do, it’s not the social post you put out there from the CEO. What you do will define how you will be seen by the world, including your consumers.”

He adds that brands should not be afraid of criticism: “If you are yourself out there you will, at some point, make some missteps and you are certainly going to piss some people off. That is the way it is.

“It is unrealistic and unreasonable that you can put some values out there and everybody is going to agree with them and pat you on the back.”

His advice to brands? “Thicken your skin” so that criticism does not demotivate the team and work hard on finding the constructive within it.

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