Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, better known for their hippy ways than their ability to win fights, unexpectedly found themselves in the ring with a heavy weight called Pillsbury. There was no bigger opponent.
Pillsbury in 1984 was a 4 billion dollar conglomerate who acquired Haagen-Dazs for 80 million in 1983 from the feisty founder Reuben Mattus. Haagen-Dazs could be found in every supermarket and controlled 20% of the ice cream market. Ben and Jerry’s in contrast had only conquered the small towns of Vermont, and had just recently launched into the Boston market.
Despite their small size, they caught the attention of the Haagen-Dazs executives when their products started showing up on the shelves of Boston’s supermarkets. Even more concerning to them was they were selling. Paul Tosi, who ran Paul’s Distributors and owned the Ben and Jerry’s distribution contract for Boston, was stunned in March 1984 when the inquires of Jim Richards, a Haagen-Dazs sales manager, turned into a nasty ultimatum. Stop distributing Ben and Jerry’s ice cream or lose the right to sell Haagen-Dazs.
The threat was real. Grocers usually only worked with one distributor for their frozen desserts to reduce traffic to their stores and billing headaches. Grocers wanted Haagen-Dazs and if Paul couldn’t supply it, they would work with another distributor. If Pillsbury and Haagen-Dazs intended on throwing the first punch, they wanted to make sure it landed.
Ben and Jerry, not known for their athletic prowess, felt it. Despite being better known for peace and love, they knew they could win a court battle but they also knew a long court battle would only favor Pillsbury. They understood that if they were in the courts, their products wouldn’t be on the shelves. While Pillsbury was focusing on the ensuing street fight, Ben and Jerry decided instead to focus on the minds of the customers.
In an ingenious maneuver—instead of playing defense like most companies—Ben and Jerry went on the offensive. They reasoned that if the customers of both Haagen-Dazs or Ben and Jerry’s knew what Pillsbury was doing, things would work in their favor. Pillsbury may own the courts but Ben and Jerry would own the media.
They came up with a campaign around the phrase: “What’s the Doughboy afraid of?” They issued a press release stating they were no threat to Pillsbury’s business. Jerry himself flew to Minneapolis and picketed in front of Pillsbury’s world head-quarters with a sign “What’s the Doughboy afraid of” and pamphlets explaining the story of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. They said: “Do you think the Doughboy is afraid of two guys working with twenty-three people in four thousand square feet of rented space? Do you think the Doughboy is afraid he’s only going to make 185.3 million in profits this year instead of 185.4 million. Do you think that maybe the Doughboy is afraid of the American Dream? We only want to make our ice cream in Vermont and let the people of Boston make their choice in the supermarket. Next time you’re in your local market, pick up a pint of Ben and Jerry’s and give it a taste. Because that’s what the Doughboy is really afraid of.”
On the back of the flyer was a coupon for a write-in kit that included letters of protest to the FTC and William Spoor, the chairman of the board at Pillsbury. The persistent could also get a t-shirt. They not only attacked in Minneapolis but in Boston as well where billboards on highways, buses, and even airplanes made appearances.
Worse than the billboards and signs for Pillsbury was its effect on their public image. The media attention was trashing it. Pillsbury caved and the final agreement was signed on March 6, 1985, only a year after it started, removing the threat. What would have squashed any other company didn’t squash Ben and Jerry. By controlling the message not only did they save their company but they created publicity worth millions that typically takes companies years to establish.
If Ben and Jerry taught us anything, it’s that the real battle is not about the products but about how people perceive them. Ben and Jerry established Pillsbury as the big evil corporation trying to crush the little guy. They were in control of the message and winning the ground war.
Too many companies forget to play offense allowing others to control their message. When this happens they spend most of their time responding to the claims of their competitors towards them. Like an army under attack, they run around the field doing damage control. And like war, which is only won by attacking, businesses only win by attacking. If they don’t establish their message in the minds of their customers others will.