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Ben & Jerry's and Black Lives Matter: purpose in action not a knee-jerk comms response

The visceral reaction to the death of George Floyd in the US, and the way the Black Lives Matter movement has been embraced internationally, appeared to take many (most?) businesses by surprise. It was as if they had never realised before that people of colour bought their products, used their services...and possibly even worked for them as well.

What to do was clearly not an easy question to answer, given the trickle of early responses. Before it became 'the thing to do' and everyone waded in (similar to the recent flood of Covid advertising). But even then it was interesting to see how carefully brands stepped around the issue. 'Thoughts and prayers' comms took centre stage, in an attempt to show solidarity without causing offence, and avoiding any requirement for real action on their part. Often the results appeared as tokenistic as they were tone deaf.

One of the honourable exceptions to this was Ben & Jerry's.

Despite being 'just' an ice cream brand, and so with no real positioning need to engage on social issues (unlike many brands which should but don't), Ben & Jerry's have never been backward in coming forward when a position needs to be taken on hot topics.

And the death of George Floyd was no exception. Going in early and going in hard, B&J gave it both barrels with no obvious concern for the naysayer response: they said silence wasn't an option, positioned all racism as white supremacy and called on the US government to take concrete steps to deliver change (they even suggested 4 ways to do this).

Quite rightly the marketing community applauded.

But though there was no explicit claim of opportunism, there was still a sense that this had been a marketing response, akin to what everyone else was doing just better (so congrats). Which is simply to reflect how most brands have treated the broader question of 'purpose' over recent years: as comms strategy (or even just execution) rather than business behaviour.

But this is unfair on B&J.

Because when I say they went in early and hard, I didn't mean now. By 2016, well before it was on the mainstream radar or a 'cool' thing to support, the brand had already pledged it's support to Black Lives Matter, explicitly calling out systemic racism with an in-depth analysis on their website. And tough this was 3 years after BLM's formation, it was still 4 years earlier than when everyone else discovered black people existed! And it's support they have lived out in the intervening years.

So not purpose as comms but purpose as action, which is the way it should be.

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Just to expand on this, a good interview from The Drum where B&J head of activism Christopher Miller expands on their involvement with Black Lives Matter:

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