Is Ben and Jerry's wise to celebrate gay marriage?

Is it right for businesses to wade in on political issues, to curmudgeon consumers with their own values and trumpet topical standpoints? Or should companies leave current affairs well alone and just get on with doing the best job they can? So the debates are raging over Ben and Jerry’s decision to rename its ‘Chubby Hubby’ ice cream ‘Hubby Hubby’ for a month in celebration of the state of Vermont’s (where the company originated) legalisation of gay marriage.

It’s not the first time the hippies of the ice cream world have used their flavours to give the public a taste of their views. When Barack Obama was elected, they renamed one offering ‘Yes Pecan’ (arf, arf).

Oliver Thring, the Guardian’s food blogger, puts forth this argument on the subject:

“[...] is this dinky piece of homespun cheeriness really the best focus of the company's efforts?

“That gay people should be able to get married seems to me a basic human right, and I admit that in a completely partisan way I was tempted to justify B&J's action as part of the ongoing struggle against ignorance and fear. But what would I be thinking if a contrary point of view was being aired? I'd be first in line to denounce them as squalid influence peddlers, shamelessly meddlesome, shiveringly undemocratic tricksters.

“Ice cream should be a relief from side-taking. It soothes and softens, comforts and consoles. B&J's sentiment is noble, but the side of a half-gallon tub is no place to daub political slogans – it's a distraction from the guzzling pleasure.”

That may be – and perhaps value-touting is not the place of all and every business out there. But Thring overlooks the commercial relevance of this move.

Ben and Jerry’s brand is all about its hippy roots, its anti-establishment sense of fun and revelry and an underlying fantasy of sit-in protests fuelled by delicious ice cream that didn’t exploit anyone in the manufacturing process. This is bang on brand – a celebration of modern, liberal life that brings a smile to your face, with a touch of irreverence for conservative traditionalism, and with a dose of gentle politics thrown in for good hippy measure.

(And as a side note, isn’t it refreshing to see something other than just the ubiquitous straight couple used to sell a mass-market product?)

Perhaps, generically speaking, Thring has a point – that in almost all cases ‘the side of a half-gallon tub is no place to daub political slogans’, just as for most businesses using products to push messages would be awkward and inappropriate. After all, I can't imagine the public taking quite so kindly to Haagen Dazs offering 'Pro-abortion strawberry cheescake' or Wall's trying to get 'More immigration rights mint choc chip' on the shelves.

But if it fits with your brand and business heritage to do so, as it does so well here, it can work like a creamy dairy dream. (And it certainly hasn’t hurt Ben and Jerry’s from a PR point of view either.) The key thing here, as always, is not to jump on a band wagon or take up a political stance for the point of it, but to do what feels most true and natural to your brand. And if that means celebrating a positive social change - well, that's just an added bonus, isn't it.

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