How Culture Trumps Size

In April 2000, when Unilever, the then-$45 billion Dutch-English consumer products giant.

In April 2000, when Unilever, the then-$45 billion Dutch-English consumer products giant, announced its acquisition of Ben & Jerry’s, the socially conscious, touchy-feely, Vermont-based ice cream maker, the general response was predictable.

“Ben & Jerry’s Sells Out” was a typical business section headline in the morning papers and on the Internet. “Everyone, it turns out, has a price,” lamented Wired magazine, while pointing out that Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the “hippies” who founded the popular brand in 1978, really didn’t want to make the deal. As the new millennium approached, giant corporate vultures were hovering above the publicly traded, under-performing Vermont institution with hungry eyes and a takeover seemed inevitable. Inside there was turmoil as some wanted to sell and others did not. Cohen and Greenfield tried to orchestrate their own buyout but could not generate an offer high enough to prevent Unilever from prevailing.

Cohen released a statement trying to put a positive spin on the deal. “While I would have preferred for Ben & Jerry’s to remain independent, I’m excited about the next chapter,” he said and then quoted the above Grateful Dead lyrics.

The consensus seemed to be that the deal would signal the end of Ben & Jerry’s well-established and respected triple bottom line: “Make Great Products, Deliver Solid Profitability, and Work Towards Progressive Social Change.” This was a company that donated 7.5 percent of its profits to charity, paid living wages and offered better benefits, supported local farmers and growers in Third World countries who produced some of its ingredients, and believed that its progressive social mission was as important as its profits.

Surely a conglomerate as big as Unilever had other ideas and it would undoubtedly swallow the brand, remake the culture and transform Ben & Jerry’s into a profit-driven marketing engine that would eventually become unrecognizable to its legions of fans.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the inevitable makeover. A dozen years after Unilever plunked down $326 million for the Ben & Jerry’s brand, the progressive, activist, socially responsible culture that was Ben & Jerry’s is alive, well and spreading its version of caring capitalism all over the world. And rather than crush the spirit out Ben & Jerry’s, Unilever, a $58 billion global powerhouse with more than 400 brands and 165,000 employees, has remade its own corporate mission to reflect the socially conscious ideas that Ben & Jerry’s was built upon. The very profitable tail, in this case, is wagging the extremely satisfied dog.

The Price for Sustainability 

In a departure from what happens in most acquisitions, Ben & Jerry’s was able to negotiate an agreement with Unilever that included the retention of the smaller company’s board of directors. The board’s mandate was to preserve and protect Ben & Jerry’s triple bottom line while Unilever tended to the business end of things. Granting such independence in perpetuity to an acquired company is not simply unusual, it is nearly unheard of. Even with that, the acquisition was hardly smooth, and the first eight or nine years were fraught with the usual trauma — customer dismay, layoffs, culture clashes — that wreaks havoc on most such acquisitions. Despite the pain, and with Jostein Solheim, a Unilever veteran and now Ben & Jerry’s third CEO in 10 years firmly in place, the two organizations survived most of the distress of these often-daunting couplings. Both have benefitted from the marriage.

“It definitely took time for the two companies to get used to each other,” said Kevin Havelock, president of Unilever’s Refreshment division, “For Ben & Jerry’s, a small company making great ice cream in Vermont, to suddenly be part of a very big company with different processes and business systems and results, it was uncomfortable at first. For Unilever, acquiring an organization that was more intuitive, more gut-feel to the way it approached things and with very strong positions on values, it wasn’t always easy. It was an up-and-down relationship, but it has held together because the social mission provided a glue, and there was good success rolling out new products and new innovations. But it’s been a real two-way learning.”

In fact, Ben and Jerry’s is not the only socially responsible player acquired by a giant company. As the global marketplace, over the past decade, has come to value companies with sustainable, green, organic, socially proactive bona fides, a long list of acquisitions have been completed with varying degrees of success. Among those acquired: Stonyfield Farm by Groupe Danone in France, Honest Tea by Coca-Cola, Tom’s of Maine by Colgate-Palmolive, Zappos by Amazon, The Body Shop by L’Oreal, cereal maker Kashi by Kellogg, Iams pet food by Procter & Gamble, Cascadian Farms by General Mills and more each year.

And what has become clear as these deals have multiplied is that success — as measured in enhanced financial results and marketplace perception — is generally based on how clearly and thoughtfully the acquiring company has considered why it is making the deal. Though this is the case in any successful merger or acquisition, it is particularly pertinent in the realm of caring capitalism.

“You have to understand what you are buying,” said Philip H. Mirvis, senior fellow at the Social Innovation Lab at Babson College and an expert on mergers and acquisitions in the CSR (corporate social responsibility) space. “You are not only buying a brand, but an organizational way of making the brand authentic. You are delivering not only a socially responsible product but one that is really good. If you don’t understand those pieces and manage that as part of the integration, you risk losing and ultimately undermining the brand.”

If a corporate giant is simply seeking a shortcut to a halo of social responsibility, these deals will inevitably be troubled. “There are plenty of companies presenting themselves as caring capitalists,” Mirvis said. “But if it is not rooted in how they make and source the product and how they really do business, then it is just a phony advertising campaign.”

Acquisitions happen for lots of reasons: quick access to new geographical markets, extensions to product lines, new technologies, scalability, enhanced revenue streams, added girth. Companies that make these kinds of CSR acquisitions are clearly looking for the profitable bump they hope to generate from consumers who are more and more often making buying decisions related to socially conscious considerations. Numerous surveys over the past decade have confirmed that a brand’s social content makes a significant difference in consumers’ purchasing decisions and that if aligned, those attributes can lead to powerful brand loyalty and increased sales. According to the Natural Marketing Institute, the LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) market was nearly $300 billion in 2008, and as the global economy continues to stir back to life, that number can only grow.

“Identifying trends and brands of the future is an amalgamation of science, art and serendipity,” said Deryck Van Rensburg, president and general manager of Venturing and Emerging Brands (VEB) at Coca-Cola. “It starts with a research-based understanding of what the consumer is looking for, as well as a point of view about where consumers are likely to be in the future. We recognize through these trends that many of our consumers’ identities are no longer defined by gender, age or geography, but by lifestyles and values. Consumers are demanding that brands go beyond benefits. They want to know how it will impact their life, community and environment.”

For many corporate giants, the lure of a fast-growing, widely admired smaller entity is too good to pass up. “There are good businesses with strong market niches and in some cases, a huge number of brand fans,” Mirvis said, “So it’s logical for companies to use these to expand their product lines and maybe even do some R&D in the socially responsible consumer space. And there is the potential that such an acquisition will somehow teach the larger company about socially responsible business and add to its reputational cachet.”

Not surprising, such corporate marriages are fraught with perils well beyond the usual M&A concerns. Most of these “do well by doing good” players prefer to remain independent and step to the beat of their own drummer. Socially responsible entrepreneurs build companies with passionate employees and a serious commitment to the triple-bottom line philosophy, and the best performers generally reflect the most committed of entrepreneurial teams. Selling the company is generally a last option in the quest for growth, scalability, broader distribution and the cash to keep building the dream.

“These are not people just looking for money,” said Gary Hirshberg, founder and chairman of Stonyfield Farm, who sold an 85 percent stake in the organic yogurt company in 2001 to giant Groupe Danone in France. “These are entrepreneurs looking to make a difference, and an acquirer has to show respect and that it understands that.”

An acquiring company that deliberately or inadvertently trifles with such passion is likely to find itself in a quagmire.

“Culture is a tricky thing,” said Michael Distefano, chief marketing officer at Korn/Ferry and a veteran of several acquisition experiences. “It is like fingerprints; no two are alike in any two organizations. The acquirer has to ask a series of questions about what prompts a merger. Are you buying a brand, revenue, a market, a niche product or the people? As with any other asset, how important is it to retain the acquired company’s culture?”

Making It Work

For Seth Goldman, the co-founder and CEO of Honest Tea, a Bethesda, Md.-based beverage maker, preserving his company’s culture is critical. And selling the company to Coca-Cola in 2011 triggered a series of new challenges.

When Coke’s Venturing and Emerging Brands group first approached Goldman in 2007 about making an investment in Honest Tea, Goldman had to consider the fallout for his fast-growing and popular brand. How would loyal consumers react to an organic, Fair Trade, environmentally friendly brand getting into bed with the world’s largest purveyor of fizzy water? Honest Tea had ambitious plans — to become the world’s first mainstream organic beverage — and it would need significant resources to make that a reality. Coke, seeking its next billion-dollar brand, could surely provide those resources, but at what cost to the brand?

Coke, whose soft drink sales were in decline, was eager to invest in smaller, high-potential beverage companies, and Honest Tea fit directly into the sweet spot (pardon the pun). For Goldman, the agreement struck in 2008 — a 40 percent stake in Honest Tea for $43 million for a limited but significant partnership — made good business sense. And the Coke management team made it clear that Coke was seeking more than just profits from the acquisition. Coca-Cola, one of the world’s iconic brands, was in the midst of serious soul-searching about the future of its business model and corporate mission.

“When the Coke management team presented the investment concept to the Coke board in 2007, they put up a visual pictogram showing the three megatrends of health and wellness, environmental responsibility and social responsibility,” Goldman said. “They showed three circles, and there was one small point where all three of those circles overlapped with each other and that is where Honest Tea is. Their point was that this convergence would become the standard for doing business and that every company will be expected to make their decisions in a way that recognizes their obligations and opportunities around health and wellness, sustainability and social responsibility.”

“Investing in entrepreneurs like the team at Honest Tea provides us with a source of innovative ideas and energy, allowing us to launch VEB internal innovations in a different way,” said Coke’s Van Rensburg. “For example, Honest Tea’s approach to sustainability was a terrific complement to our own efforts, and it brings a significant capability to VEB with its strong natural channel sales force.”

Understanding that Coke viewed this as a business approach it needed to emulate, Goldman felt comfortable inking the deal. Coke retained the right to buy all of Honest Tea after three years and in 2011, did just that. The results for Honest Tea (though Coke won’t break out profit figures) have been impressive, according to Goldman. Before the Coke deal, Honest Tea was sold in 15,000 stores nationwide. By summer 2011, the beverage was available in more than 80,000 stores and is expected to climb to more than 100,000 sometime this year, including 1,500 Target stores and 6,000 CVS outlets. Honest Tea’s revenues have more than tripled since 2008, according to Goldman.

More important to Goldman is that Coke seems to be in lockstep with Honest Tea’s sustainability agenda, collaborating on many environmental and social initiatives that demonstrate Coke’s commitment to a new mission. Honest Tea’s authenticity, he pointed out, was built upon sustainability, organics, Fair Trade — all potentially questionable characteristics when consumers hear that a company like Coca- Cola is investing. Those are not equities necessarily associated with the Coke brand.

“What we were really doing was asking our customers to accept the same Honest Tea that they always accepted but with the understanding that we were now owned by a different company,” Goldman said. “We demonstrated our commitment to our ideals by completing our conversion of our teas to full Fair Trade certification four weeks after the deal with Coke was signed. Instead of taking it down a notch, we bumped it up a notch!”

Goldman acknowledges the inevitable challenges. When the first Coke investment was announced in 2008, Honest Tea lost several accounts. And due to the giant corporation’s bureaucracy, Honest Tea cannot move as quickly to market with new products as it did as an independent entity. But for Goldman, the upside far outweighs the negatives. In order to change the American diet, instill the value of organics and spread its reach far beyond Whole Foods and natural food co-ops, Honest Tea required Coke’s massive global scope and reach. And the key to the acquisition’s success was the three-year collaboration before the final acquisition. “The best way to protect your interest is to demonstrate your value,” Goldman said.

Van Rensburg agreed. “The three-year period was extremely important as it provided both organizations a unique opportunity to build our relationship and learn about the core competencies each could contribute to the growth of the brand.” The minority stake also gave Coke a vantage point from which to assess how Honest Tea’s presence would impact the Coca-Cola business and culture. “Watching Honest Tea encouraged us to obtain organic certification at three of our facilities,” he said, and to establish “a state-of-the-art tea brewing and filtration system at a bottling plant.”

After demonstrating his value, Goldman was able to make and be granted an unusual demand, that he retain a portion of his own personal equity in the company. In so doing, he would have skin in the game and demonstrate publicly to his employees that he was sticking around. Without the three-year relationship, such a demand would not have been realistic. “They wouldn’t have known who I was and how I acted, so they would have said no,” he explained.

Of course, the road to acquisition nirvana is always paved with good intentions. What happens when the inevitable conflicts arise? Not long after Coke made its initial investment in Honest Tea, the relationship was tested. Honest Tea offered a line of Honest Kids beverages, and the label on those bottles included a promise: “No high fructose corn syrup.” Coke objected to the language, believing it cast a negative light on Coke’s use of the sweetener in many of its offerings. Goldman refused to change the statement, pointing out the importance of this promise to parents buying products for their children.

“At the time, Coke was a minority owner, so they backed off,” Goldman said. “We also used the situation as a great lesson for all of us on both sides. We got them to agree, before we put together the final operating agreement, that we need to be able to keep putting in language that is meaningful to us and to our consumers. And it still has that same language on the package today, and now Coke owns the company.”

After the Honeymoon

Clearly, the details of a legally binding agreement are crucial in setting transparent and effective expectations in any acquisition. But sometimes even that cannot guarantee tranquility. Up in the idyllic green mountains of northwest Vermont, the Ben & Jerry’s crew had to endure long stretches of discontent before reaching its current state of bliss. A company that produces ice cream flavors such as Schweddy Balls and Chubby Hubby must have an exceptional sense of humor. But that didn’t obscure the trauma of the takeover.

Unwanted or hostile takeovers are never easy. In Unilever, Ben & Jerry’s had a savior who offered the best of an undesirable situation. Jeff Furman, a social activist and long-time chairman of the Ben & Jerry’s board, said the company was vehement in its determination to remain independent. “We didn’t actively seek a suitor, and we weren’t looking to do this,” he said.

But having gone public in 1984, and with most of its original, like-minded investors having cashed out, the company knew its shares were in the hands of institutional investors who were concerned about the ice cream maker’s performance. A takeover began to seem inevitable. Stonyfield’s Hirshberg introduced Unilever to Cohen and Greenfield in hopes that there might be a more comfortable fit.

Neither Cohen nor Greenfield were running the company anymore but they remained active, especially on the social mission side. The buyout “was a painful moment for them emotionally,” said Furman. (Cohen and Greenfield declined to be interviewed.) In the early years after the acquisition, Furman said, “both sides were not comfortable with each other.” The feeling was that it was a strain to get needed information, and some doubted that there was an “open and honest commitment on both sides to make this work.” Cohen and Greenfield distanced themselves from the company, though they never severed ties completely.

Furman said the Ben & Jerry’s board did not have the powers of a real board of directors. It had a contractual relationship but not the responsibilities of most boards. For example, it could make recommendations on the CEO’s bonus but it could not hire or fire the CEO. It was focused mainly on the third aspect of the triple bottom line, the social mission, and for a long time, it felt that Unilever was not interested in pursuing a truly progressive social agenda. Perfunctory attempts to support environmental concerns didn’t impress anyone. “Leading by progressive values really means something to us,” Furman said. “It didn’t feel like the energy was there.”

In fact, Unilever’s origins are surprisingly harmonious with Ben & Jerry’s philosophical åunderpinnings. Founded as Lever Brothers in England in 1885, the companies that would later become Unilever took an activist role in improving hygiene and nutrition as well as living conditions. For example, founder Lord William Hesketh Lever invented a new soap for working class women during the Industrial Revolution. Unable to afford the luxurious soaps used by the wealthy, these women were forced to use lye to remove the dirt and grime. Lord Lever’s Sunlight Soap was intended “to make cleanliness commonplace; to lessen work for women; to foster health and contribute to personal attractiveness.”

In the new millennium, Unilever has launched its “Sustainable Living Plan,” an ambitious effort aimed at halving the environmental footprint of all of its products by the year 2020. Unilever’s Havelock credits its relationship with Ben & Jerry’s for teaching the corporate giant about initiating stretch goals that really test the organization. “We’re helped by having an organization like Ben & Jerry’s, where that has always mattered so much,” he said. “We’re learning from an organization that has always put stretch objectives into areas such as this, about how to find completely new Fair Trade, sustainable sources of product.” In just the past couple of years, the relationship has warmed substantially.

The arrival of Jostein Solheim, an 18-year Unilever ice cream division veteran, has made a significant impact. Unilever’s increased social activism also helped, but according to Furman what really shifted the mood was a decision on both sides to eliminate the bickering and move the organization forward. “We stopped arguing about what happened last week and decided to try to make the agreement work from a fresh start,” Furman said.

Cohen and Greenfield, roving brand ambassadors, have re-emerged in a visible way. The company, with Unilever’s support, has pressed for approval of same-sex marriage and campaign finance reform, while Cohen and Greenfield publicly announced support for the Occupy Wall Street movement. Havelock stated that Unilever has always understood that Cohen and Greenfield are activists with strong viewpoints. “They are free to have those views, and we respect those views,” he said, though not going so far as to suggest that Unilever will publicly endorse all their positions. “It’s great that they are positively engaged and enjoying this phase of Ben & Jerry’s life,” he added.

The new detente is real, according to Ben & Jerry’s rank and file. Kirsten Schimoler, a senior food scientist in the company’s South Burlington, Vt., headquarters, worked at Unilever’s food division in its U.S. corporate offices in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., for four years before transferring to Ben & Jerry’s two years ago. “When I first got here, there were different people in leadership, and there was a sense that it was Ben & Jerry’s versus Unilever,” she said. “It’s definitely become a lot easier to work together lately, and the cross-pollination is happening more and more.”

From a pure business perspective, the acquisition is an unquestioned success. Ben & Jerry’s has grown every year since the acquisition and has more than doubled its revenues. With Unilever’s worldwide reach, its global supply chain, production and research and development facilities, the brand is stronger than ever and is available in nearly 30 countries. By any measure, it is a crown jewel in Unilever’s brand portfolio.

David Stever, Ben & Jerry’s vice president of marketing, is a 23-year veteran who has seen the before and after. “It’s been like five different companies in that time period, so it’s evolved and changed,” he said. “Right now, I would say that we are as Ben & Jerry’s as Ben & Jerry’s has ever been.”

Korn Ferry’s Consumer Products Sector has one of the largest global footprints and in-depth insight into dynamic trends influencing the industry. Learn more.


Glenn Rifkin has written for The New York Times, Fast Company, Strategy + Business, and many other publications.

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