Ben & Jerry’s butts heads with Unilever over brand’s presence in Israel

Dive Brief:

  • Ben & Jerry’s released a statement Monday saying that it would end sales in “Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT)” while continuing operations in Israel through “a different arrangement.”
  • The Unilever-owned ice cream brand has a longstanding partnership with an Israeli licensee that manufactures and distributes its products in the region, but will not renew the contract when it expires at the end of 2022. Ben & Jerry’s did not disclose further details around its plans for the country but said it would provide an update as soon as it’s ready.

  • Ben & Jerry’s independent board claims the statement was published by Unilever without its approval, a move it alleges violates the terms of an acquisition agreement. The board had drafted its own statement that didn’t reference continued sales in Israel, according to documents reviewed by NBC News. The clash shows Ben & Jerry’s progressive bent creating considerable strain in the relationship with its parent company at a time when brand purpose is paramount. 

Dive Insight:

Ben & Jerry’s made waves on social media — and stirred plenty of controversy — with a new position on ending sales in occupied Palestinian territories. However, the statement released Monday on its website and Twitter was apparently published without the approval of the ice cream brand’s board of directors, and with references to a continued presence in Israel that the independent group did not plan on including — the suggestion being that Unilever essentially watered down the intended message.

The board’s belief that Unilever circumvented its wishes has created significant tension between the ice cream label and its owner. The clash speaks to the potential limits of marketing mass consumer brands around divisive political and social causes, particularly at a time when such issues are in the international spotlight.

Ben & Jerry’s has championed progressive causes since its inception, and taken bold stances around dismantling white supremacy and defunding the police in recent months. As part of its purchase of the brand in 2000, Unilever set up a special arrangement where an independent board of directors would preserve Ben & Jerry’s social mission, brand integrity and product quality.

Unilever on Monday separately put out a statement reaffirming its commitments to Israel, where it has operated for decades. It also nodded to the power Ben & Jerry’s board wields in forwarding its brand values.

As part of the acquisition agreement, we have always recognised the right of the brand and its independent Board to take decisions about its social mission,” the packaged goods giant said. “We also welcome the fact that Ben & Jerry’s will stay in Israel.”

But that’s apparently not a sentiment with which all board members agree. Speaking to NBC News, Anuradha Mittal, the board’s chair, did not mince words.

They are trying to destroy the soul of the company,” Mittal told the publication. “We want this company to be led by values and not be dictated by the parent company.”

The board also offered its own statement in response to Unilever, claiming the company “and its CEO at Ben & Jerry’s are in violation of the spirit and the letter of the acquisition agreement.”

Unilever has already received pushback for Ben & Jerry’s plans to wind down sales in occupied territories. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett chided Unilever chief executive Alan Jope Monday about the decision, stating it would have “serious consequences, legal and otherwise, and that it will act aggressively against all boycott actions directed against its citizens,” according to Yahoo News.

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