From the December 1997 issue of Startups

It began with $12,000, two big sweet tooths and a complete disregard for business rules. It snowballed into a $167-million-per-year ice cream company with more than 160 "scoop shops" known collectively as Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc. Famous for their socially responsible business practices and unique ice cream flavors, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield lead the pack in combining a quality product and social activism with creative and unusual promotions.

From their first ice cream shop, housed in a renovated gas station in Burlington, Vermont, Cohen and Greenfield have led their business with their hearts, believing that business has a responsibility to give back to the community. "The more you support the community, the more it supports you by purchasing your product," explains Mitch Curren, the PR Info. Queen. (Her title exemplifies the unconventional nature of Ben & Jerry's.) Cohen and Greenfield continue their efforts by donating 7.5 percent of the company's pre-tax earnings to social awareness projects through the Ben & Jerry's Foundation, which disburses the money to nonprofit organizations, and by creating products such as Rainforest Crunch ice cream and Peace Pops ice cream bars that get their messages to the public.

Cohen and Greenfield combined their community support with fun promotions from day one. The self-proclaimed hippies knew two things about themselves and their business: they liked to throw parties, and they wanted to support their customers. After the first successful summer at the original scoop shop, they threw the first "Fall Down," a celebration of the coming autumn season. With other local businesses, they created a street fair featuring a stilts-walking contest and an apple-peeling contest--and lots of ice cream. Thus, Ben & Jerry's unique style of "event marketing" was born.


Laura Tiffany enjoys finding new reasons to buy Ben & Jerry's ice cream.

The Power of Promotions

Using event marketing, product sampling and an emphasis on customer service, Ben and Jerry's has built widespread product recognition with very little traditional advertising. With Cohen and Greenfield's offbeat personalities and value-led philosophies infecting every aspect of their business, Ben & Jerry's has become world-famous for its promotional techniques. Here are some tips from Ben & Jerry's that you may be able to incorporate into your own business promotions:

  • Offer special, off-season promotions. While your business may not have as long an off-season as a Ben & Jerry's ice cream shop, you can still take hints from some of the company's most unique winter promotions. Their first winter in business, Ben & Jerry's created "POPCDBZWE," or the "pennies off per Celsius degree below zero winter extravaganza." They also featured "white sales," inspired by Bloomingdales' winter bedding sales, when vanilla ice cream and whipped cream were 10-percent off.
  • Give samples of your product. One of the most-often-used promotional methods in Ben & Jerry's company history is product sampling. While they initially offered samples in their stores, in 1986, Cohen and Greenfield drove the "Cowmobile," a modified mobile home, in a cross-country marketing drive to distribute free scoops of ice cream. They repeated the effort in 1987 in the "Cow II."
  • Celebrate your business' success with your customers. On Ben & Jerry's first anniversary, Cohen and Greenfield gave away free cones to all their customers. "It was a very difficult year, and they wanted to thank customers, have fun and congratulate each other," Curren says. "They created `Free Cone Day,' and it continues every year at the scoop shops."
  • Make your customers a part of your business. To date, three flavors have been named by customers: Chunky Monkey, Cherry Garcia and Chubby Hubby. The most recent, Chubby Hubby, inspired a celebration in York, Pennsylvania, the hometown of the consumers who created it. Cohen and Greenfield led a Harley Davidson parade, while the mayor officially proclaimed it "Chubby Hubby Day."
  • Throw a big party. From the first Fall Down to the current One World/One Heart festivals, Ben & Jerry's knows how to throw a good shindig. The free One World/One Heart festival, given annually in Vermont since 1991, combines all the elements of Ben & Jerry's promotional campaigns. Festival attendees can support causes at "social action tents" by sending postcards to Congress (in exchange for a scoop of free ice cream), listen to live music and play games.
  • Build a relationship with your customers. From the photograph on the top of their ice cream containers to their numerous public events every year, Cohen and Greenfield are the most approachable legends of the business world. "Traditional advertisements don't give you anything," Curren explains. "Rather than seeing Ben and Jerry partying on television, you can be there partying with them at the festivals."
  • Run a socially responsible business and share your views. Ben & Jerry's not only supports numerous causes, such as the redirection of the U.S. military budget, but the founders also create products to promote their beliefs. The company created Rainforest Crunch ice cream because Cohen and Greenfield realized it could increase economic demands for living rain forest products by using Brazil nuts. At the same time, they could increase public awareness of the deforestation problem by packaging their product in a rain-forest-themed container.
  • Support your community. When Ben & Jerry's needed to raise money for a new manufacturing facility in 1984, Cohen and Greenfield offered public stock options to Vermont residents. Today, they still use only Vermont dairy products to make their ice cream.
  • Know when to use traditional methods of promotions. When Ben & Jerry's launched its line of smooth ice creams, the founders knew it would take a lot of effort to get the public to accept a no-chunk ice cream from Ben & Jerry's. So they created a national TV campaign, directed by Spike Lee, to promote the ice cream.

Promoting on a Smaller Scale

Regardless of the size of your advertising budget, you can implement the main promotional strategies of Ben & Jerry's--event marketing, sampling and customer service--while providing community support. Ben & Jerry's has become large enough that it can sponsor a two-day festival with 50,000 attendees each year, but it began on a shoestring budget, like your business. Throwing a party for your customers is possible through your ingenuity, not just your pocketbook. The first Fall Down cost only $300, because Cohen and Greenfield provided much of the entertainment themselves. The next spring, after noticing a large, blank wall on the building adjacent to the first shop, they decided a summer movie festival was in order; the films were projected onto the blank wall Events like these not only create a strong, community-friendly image for your business, they bring in new customers.

If initiating a new local festival is beyond your time and budget limits, you can set up a booth at an existing street fair or holiday festival and participate on a smaller scale. Continue to celebrate your community spirit by purchasing supplies from local manufacturers and vendors. You can create a local network of businesses this way, and you can emphasize your community loyalty to your customers. If you can't afford to sponsor a folk festival like Ben & Jerry's does with the Newport Folk Festival, sponsor a local theater group or Little League team instead. Donate your time and services to local charity groups and tell the media about it through press releases.

If you own a service business, get creative with your samples. Offer discount coupons for first-time customers or punch cards for regular customers. Offer demonstrations of your service. If you have a seasonal business, use special promotions to bring in customers, like unique and even silly (POPCDBZWE) sales. Promote holidays that businesses like yours usually ignore. Cohen and Greenfield honor mothers by giving away free cones on Mother's Day.

Most of all, celebrate your business and your customers. After all, without your customers, where would your business be? Let them know how important they are by giving them a party or even free samples of your product. Show your appreciation by giving back to the customers the support they've given your business.

Tips From Business Start-Ups

1. Create an event that relates to your business. If you market kids' products, host a children's art show or a children's safety seminar.

2. Holiday promotions can work for you any time of year. Consult Chase's Calendar of Events (Contemporary Books, $59.95, 888-540-9440) to find unusual causes for celebration that will draw customers' attention.

3. Get your customers involved in your business. If you're about to launch a new product, invite customers to suggest names for the new item. Offer a prize for the best idea.

4. Get involved. Choose a cause that appeals to you, and let customers know how they can help. Offer discounts to customers who bring a canned food item for your local food bank or donate a percentage of your sales to an organization you believe in.

5. Let the media know what's going on in your business. Send press releases to local newspapers, magazines and TV and radio stations to announce the release of a new product, your business's anniversary or any other newsworthy event that involves your company.

6. Get customers excited. Hold a raffle, celebrate your birthday or throw a free-sample party.

7. Award a scholarship. Offer a cash award to the local high school student who writes the best essay about your industry.

8. Band together with other businesses in your neighborhood to hold a street fair or a sidewalk sale.

9. Sponsor a contest. A pet-store owner, for example could host a dog or cat show. If you're a business coach, invite customers to enter your contest for the "Entrepreneur of the Year" in your town.

10. Offer a seminar. You can supply the information yourself or team up with related businesses to cut costs and reach more people.

Contact Source

Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc., http://www.benjerry.com