The beauty of many entrepreneurial start-ups these days is that their brands can be so refreshingly eccentric and charming. Often they succeed by creating new space in mature categories that no one ever anticipated, and the persona of the founder can make these brands even more distinctive and memorable. Two classic examples are Burt Shavitz for Burt’s Bees, acquired by Clorox in 2007, and Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield for Ben & Jerry’s, purchased by Unilever in 2000.
When these were acquired however, there was an immediate fear that the folksy appeal of each brand would be compromised by the soulless culture of their huge international corporate owners. The counter culture, individualist personality of the founders (i.e. the “face of the brand”), including their focus on local, organic ingredients and socially responsible initiatives, had played a pivotal role for their success. Fortunately their brand integrity was preserved.
The key to successful branding is to cultivate an emotional connection with consumers, ideally by creating an engaging, beloved brand personality. Burt’s Bees and Ben & Jerry’s share very similar traits that have made their brand so unique and captivating:
• Their unconventional personalities have become unforgettable icons that strongly appeal to younger people, in particular, who can relate to their maverick ways and their “hippie niche”.
• The rustic charm of their product origins, Maine and Vermont, contributes to the passionate, progressive image of these emotion driven brands, supported by the founders’ self-deprecating humor and humble authenticity.
• The emphasis for all their products is on nature, using local organic sources to reinforce their purity, making their brands more credible
• A key dimension of their brand appeal is their social mission (B&J’s mission statement includes “making the world a better place”) and community mindedness, giving something back locally in ways that delight Millennials.
Burt Shavitz, originally from Manhattan and a genuine hippie, passed away recently at age 80. His weather-worn face, thick beard and conductor’s cap continue to be the visual image of the brand. With his partner, Roxanne Quimby, they started Burt’s Bees, a personal care product company, in 1984. In 2003, he was bought out by Roxanne for just $4 million and Clorox later bought it in 2007 for almost $1 billion. But no regrets by Burt. He simply said that the land he lived on was worth far more to him than all the commercial buzz and stress from all that money. These down-to-earth values reflect to some degree those of Millennials, who are more interested in doing something “meaningful” versus an obsession of power and money.
Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield were also transplanted New Yorkers who were captivated by the rustic charm and genuine honesty of Vermont. They started this ice creamery in 1978 in Burlington, and soon offered stock to local Vermont residents hoping to “to spread the wealth” for their community. Both were passionate about their mission of giving back to society, with sourcing from local organic dairy farms, no artificial growth hormones, developing chemical-free containers, and making fair-trade and organic ingredients a priority.
The most encouraging part of the story behind these brands and their corporate takeover is the recognition of the unique integrity of each brand by Clorox and Unilever, both very sophisticated and smart companies. It was a rocky start for Ben & Jerry’s however, with Unilever seeking synergies and laying off many employees. But Unilever eventually recognized the merits of this progressive culture and gave B&J more autonomy. Ben & Jerry’s even became a B Corporation recently, a certification by B Lab, a non-profit group that designates a company which upholds high social and environmental standards.
There are some important marketing lessons from these case studies:
1. The evolving tastes and desires of their primary customers, younger or Millennials, will ultimately determine how well a brand will prosper. In these cases, the brands appealed to their growing obsession for natural ingredients, and a modest, authentic even humble brand persona that they can relate to, plus an unconventional sense of humor as a form of entertainment that really appeals to Millennials.
2. Branding is all about developing a bond with a brand personality, not a “thing”, and relating emotionally to such interesting characters as Burt, Ben and Jerry created a strong foundation for brand trust, engaging fascination and loyalty.
3. Finding a niche at the outset with a distinct, focused appeal is essential for building a successful business in today’s hyperactive, competitive world.
4. Storytelling is powerful, and the saga of how these founders left the big city to discover the simple purity of living and working in Maine and Vermont resonates with so many of its customers.