Finance

Unilever tangled with quirky Ben & Jerry’s ice cream makers

“The rock&roll image of Ben & Jerry’s has become bad PR now,” said corporate governance expert Peter-Jan Engelen of Utrecht University.

“If you have a problem with Israel, the state of Florida has a problem with you.” The website of Governor Ron DeSantis makes no bones about it. If in any way you’re bothering Israel, Florida doesn’t like you anymore.

Like New Jersey, Texas and Arizona, Florida plans to divest all Unilever shares.

Against the Israel Boycott

And that number of states seems to be growing. More than half of US states have laws against boycotting Israel. And with that an obligation to divest, for example, investments in companies that boycott Israel. The pressure on this from the Jewish community in the US and beyond is increasing.

Unilever would lose approximately half a billion euros to shareholders. Not much on the total stock market value, but then it should stay that way.

Unusual ice cream and a lot of hassle

Despite the strong growth in sales of the ice creams, Unilever is having a hard time with the idiosyncratic subsidiary Ben & Jerry’s. The company of founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield (both ‘proudly Jewish’) was bought in 2000.

But the activist ice cream makers of Chocolate Fudge Browie and Rain-dough Cookie Dough Twist, among others, had their demands.

With that sale it was stipulated that Ben & Jerry’s could keep a large degree of independence. Good for creativity. But also good to inspire others with the way of working.

Vote for social change

Cohen and Greenfield have since left the company, but the current top still sees it that way. According to board chairman Anuradha Mittal, autonomy is “an opportunity to give voice to what are called ideological fantasies, and to see a vision for social change come to fruition.”

And therefore also to put the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, which has been strongly criticized by almost the entire world, on the map.

Who thinks about hassle with Israel now?

At Unilever, they wanted to give the board the freedom to make tasty and nicer ice creams with the autonomy. But Ben & Jerry’s is also openly committed to gay rights, peace, refugees and against racism, among other things.

When Unilever bought Ben & Jerry’s, the company was organized differently, says Professor of Corporate Governance Hans van Oosterhout of the Rotterdam School of Management.

“It was more like a conglomerate of brands. Now Unilever itself is much more present as a brand. I don’t think that when Unilever bought Ben & Jerry’s, people ever thought that the occupation of Palestinian territories would ever become a problem for them.” .”

Anti-Trump ice cream

Ben & Jerry’s often chooses sides in politics. The ice makers openly opposed US President Donald Trump in 2018. They introduced anti-Trump ice cream. Because they “can no longer remain silent about President Trump’s policies in the United States.”

Last year, the company also stopped advertising on Facebook and Instagram. And demands that social media crack down on racism and hate speech.

Rock&roll image

According to Engelen from Utrecht University, Unilever has burned its fingers on the trendy ice cream. “They took advantage of Ben & Jerry’s rock & roll image. But now it has overplayed the hand with it. Now they act like they have no influence on the daughter.”

He thinks Unilever initially had no problem with Ben & Jerry’s position on the boycott of Palestinian territories. “It could work out well for their audiences, especially in Europe. If the reaction of the American states hadn’t been there, they would have been fine with it.”

The last time

Unilever has since written a letter to the state of New Jersey in which it distances itself from Ben & Jerry’s position. The company says it is against a boycott that anti-Semitism has no place in society and points out that Ben & Jerry’s will remain for sale in Israel.

A Unilever director said in the FD that subsidiaries will no longer be given as much autonomy in future takeovers.

Board is not there for Unilever

According to Van Oosterhout, it is special that the Unilever subsidiary can still operate so autonomously in the field of Ben & Jerry’s social mission after more than twenty years.

“At the takeover, it was stipulated that the board of Ben & Jerry’s itself appoints the majority of new members, which means that even today it still has a majority of directors from the social sector. Unilever apparently did not try or was unable to appoint the board. fully serve the interests of Unilever.”

And now?

It is difficult, he says, as to how to proceed.

“The owner can always try to change the articles of association. But the board of Ben & Jerry’s, which only functions as a watchdog of the social mission, will probably not cooperate. It is certainly not a short-term solution.”

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