Plum and Campbell’s, Seventh Generation and Unilever, Annie’s and General Mills… The trend is clear: global brands want in on the mission-driven social impact market. The trend is clear: global brands want in on the mission-driven social impact market. Click To Tweet And I don’t think this should be perceived as a bad thing. But how do social enterprises that often have a loyal following go about maintaining mission and authenticity through acquisition?
To learn from example, I’m taking a look back at another one of the most notable acquisitions, Unilever of Ben & Jerry’s, for insights into how one socially conscious company sold without selling out.
Ben & Jerry’s kept it real
Upon completion of its acquisition by Unilever, Ben & Jerry’s said in a statement quoted in the New York Times: ”Shareholders will be rewarded. Ben & Jerry’s employees will be protected; the current social mission of Ben & Jerry’s will be encouraged and well-funded, which will lead to improved performance in this area, and an opportunity has been offered for Ben & Jerry’s to contribute to Unilever’s social practices worldwide.”
With striking honesty, company founder Ben Cohen also said, “While I would have preferred for Ben & Jerry’s to remain independent, I’m excited about this next chapter.”
Mergers and acquisitions inherently create uncertainty, particularly when it’s taking place between a social impact company and a corporation with a seemingly misaligned mission. However, Ben & Jerry’s did two things perfectly to maintain their mission and authenticity in the announcement of this acquisition:
- They put the positive impact it would have on their social mission front and center in their messaging.
- They were honest and transparent about their own hesitations surrounding the acquisition.
Ben & Jerry’s views weren’t covered with PR speak, and it made their feelings about a time of transition very relatable to those who loved the company.
Ben & Jerry’s walked the walk
More than just stating that the acquisition was going to amplify their social mission, Ben & Jerry’s showed it, and they continue to show it today. When the acquisition was announced, it was clear the company would maintain its autonomy and continue to commit a percentage of profits to the Ben & Jerry’s foundation. Unilever also committed to giving $5 million to the foundation, creating a $5 million fund to help minority-owned businesses and others in poor neighborhoods, as well as distributing $5 million to employees over six months.
Following that announcement, Ben & Jerry’s got off to a rocky start that included a round of layoffs. However, Ben & Jerry’s has come out ahead, both from a business and impact perspective. Since the acquisition, it’s tripled its revenue and added hundreds of employees.
Today, the company still maintains its three-part mission “that aims to create linked prosperity for everyone that’s connected to [their] business: suppliers, employees, farmers, franchisees, customers, and neighbors alike.”
Ben & Jerry’s brings its mission to life in day-to-day operations as well as through the support of issues such as climate, justice and marriage equality. According to Business Insider, the company has “retained a good deal of autonomy: Not just its dog friendly offices with an indoor slide, but also the freedom to endorse social activism movements like Black Lives Matter.”
Ben & Jerry’s acquisition amplified its impact
As they were with Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever, people are resistant to change. However, as Seventh Generation’s (a company also recently acquired by Unilever) former CEO Jeffrey Hollender said in an interview with Bloomberg, “We have to get the largest companies on the planet to move in a more sustainable direction.” Smaller companies don’t necessarily have the reach and influence on the marketplace to tackle issues as major as climate change or social inequity.
And while the company’s other founder, Jerry Greenfield, might not credit Ben & Jerry’s acquisition to positive change at Unilever, many others do. Beyond its contribution to Unilever, Ben & Jerry’s has made a bigger impact with its own initiatives because of the growth made possible through acquisition. I think there’s one very key reason why: Ben & Jerry’s maintained its authenticity.
Current Ben & Jerry’s CEO Jostein Solheim, said: “…when companies come to the world of corporate social responsibility, they ask themselves, ‘What do people really care about? And how can we be a part of that?’ … We actually ask ourselves, ‘What do we truly believe in — us?’ … It starts with our values, and then we apply and join in movements with other partners to make change.”
If companies involved in these most recent acquisitions follow in similar footsteps to Ben & Jerry’s to maintain their authenticity and a mission-driven focus, the world will be a better, more socially conscious, sustainable place— and I’m on board with that.
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