How do you measure success in your company’s innovation strategy? Ben & Jerry’s strives to create engagement, stories that are willingly shared and essentially present products that fans don’t want to live without, summarized in two words: “Flavor excitement.” Success, then, can not only be measured by how popular the newest flavors are but also for what stories they tell and how they support the overall business and brand.
Historically, the top 10 flavors have been challenging to beat in terms of sales – with the list dominated by existing, iconic combinations that have chipped their way into pop vernacular over the past 30 years, such as Phishfood, Cherry Garcia or Chubby Hubby. While those long-time flavors continue to be our best performers, ongoing innovation is what keeps B&J fresh, relevant and in tune with popular culture.
Launching a flavor with Stephen Colbert in 2007 was deemed risky by some as mainstream competitor Jay Leno had a much larger audience at 5.7 million viewers around that time. Still, Colbert was a better fit for the company, matching its irreverence, tone of humor and left-of-center personality. Today, Colbert’s flavor (AmeriCone) is one that has pierced the “Crème de glace” ceiling of the very top iconic lineup breaking into the top 10 flavors featured nationally — and that’s before Colbert takes over the CBS Late Show next year.
Ben & Jerry’s aims to build partnerships based on shared values and objectives rather than traditional sponsorships. Those partners are then expected to donate their share of the proceeds to help address social needs. This joint commitment to have a positive impact on society is what creates an authentic relationship and allows us to expand these partnerships beyond the specific flavor to support us when taking positions on key social justice issues, or our values-led ingredient sourcing programs, like Fairtrade.
Ben & Jerry’s takes a different perspective on what constitutes a “business risk.” Our objective is to positively impact society and the biggest risk we see is a fundamental lack of action and progress on most of the critical issues facing the world today from climate change, sustainable agriculture to structural income inequality. While the company’s social mission is a separate topic unto itself, we do see the risk of not taking action, not taking a stand as more significant than any potential down-side from actions such as being the only business that actively supported the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York.
This approach to “business risk” is also reflected in our innovation strategy where one of the main “unlocks” for the company is around how we deal with “failure.” While our intention is to always create flavors that our ice cream fans can’t live without, the natural challenge of maintaining approximately 50 flavors in pints on shelves and in franchised Scoop Shops, means we also have our fair share of failures, or “flavor flops.” The difference is that we actively celebrate our failures, in typical Ben & Jerry’s fashion, with tongue and corporate sense of humor firmly in cheek. On site at our visitor center we proudly feature a “Flavor Graveyard” for our dearly departed flavors deserving of eternal recognition. Flavor disasters such as “Lemon Peppermint Carob Chip” or “Sugar Plum” enjoy eternal rest here. I have never met a real innovator that does not have a long list of glorious failures!
Innovation must be “always on,” be deeply rooted in real human needs and popular culture trends, and be activated from the heart not just the head. All food is essentially an emotional experience. At Ben & Jerry’s, trained foodie chefs are responsible for R&D. Being “always on” is a commitment to broad involvement across the whole company. Ideas are being explored and bandied about every day. Ben & Jerry’s teams spend time in the “real world” visiting delis, restaurants, food carts, specialty stores, ethnic food stores and other foodie places. We foster a non-hierarchical creative culture; we have a deep respect for ideas and protect them from typical snappy evaluation and rejection. The effort is more chef than scientist and everyone is invited to participate. That responsibility doesn’t end with those only earning a paycheck from Ben & Jerry’s. Even our fans get in on a scoop of the action.
The fans’ record has, so far, proved quite adept. Flavors such as Cherry Garcia, Chubby Hubby, Chunky Monkey and Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough were all suggested by fans. The last one – getting raw gobs of cookie dough in ice cream – was accomplished via many trials on the floor of the Waterbury Production facility, not too many steps away from the Flavor Graveyard itself. It was a tremendous success and continues today to remain in the top handful of offerings.
Whether it’s the early days of inventing Cookie Dough ice cream, or combining a few of the most popular flavors, which B&J did in 2000 to make Half Baked ice cream (Cookie Dough plus Chocolate Fudge Brownie), which unseated Cherry Garcia as the best-selling ice cream in the U.S., it’s easy to see that the commitment to innovation must be fully baked. Trial and error, success and failure, are simply part of the process. Being fearless, celebrating failure, and leveraging all company assets from fans to employees is at the core of the Ben & Jerry’s innovation strategy.