How Ben & Jerry’s showed that creativity can beat powerful

"Fearless play", argues executive creative director and partner of The Hallway, Simon Lee, is vital in the face of adversity.

Ben & Jerry’s ice cream founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield had every right to be fearful in 1984. At a meeting in a dark corner of an airport restaurant, their distributor told them the Pillsbury Corporation had bought Haagen-Daz and was threatening to stop selling him Haagen-Daz if he continued to sell Ben & Jerry’s. Haagen-Daz was the distributor’s main money maker, so he had no choice but to cut off Ben & Jerry’s core distribution pipeline.

The partners consulted a lawyer who confirmed that under federal antitrust law, the incident qualified as a restraint of trade. But as a new startup facing off against a company worth over US$4 billion, this was a legal battle they couldn’t win.

What Cohen and Greenfield did next has become the stuff of business legend. They responded with a cheeky grassroots campaign with the headline ‘What’s the Doughboy afraid of?’. They printed ads on their ice cream containers asking for their loyal customers’ support. And if a customer sent in $10 they received a bumper sticker and a t-shirt with the campaign line on the front and ‘Ben & Jerry’s Legal Defense Fund: Major Contributor’ on the back.

The supporters’ package also included a ‘Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?’ letter designed to be signed and sent to the chairman of Pillsbury. The chairman was flooded with letters from loyal Ben & Jerry’s customers, Pillsbury’s anti-competitive trade practices began to attract increasing media coverage and ultimately Pillsbury relented.

There are many reasons this bold customer-centric response succeeded, but essentially,  Cohen and  Greenfield won because they were fearlessly playful in the face of adversity. And an attitude of ‘fearless play’ has been a consistent factor in growing Ben & Jerry’s into one of the world’s most loved brands and a company that made US$681.5 million in revenue in the US last year.

As we stare down the barrel of a significant economic downturn, ‘fearless play’ might well not be high on corporate leaders’ list of priorities. But it will be organisations that can turn the uncertainty we are facing into a platform for creativity and new ways of thinking and doing, that will emerge as winners.

In his novel ‘Dune’, Frank Herbert famously wrote that ‘Fear is the mind killer’. This is science fiction writing, but the words are science fact. The part of the human brain responsible for many of our cognitive abilities including creative and analytical thinking, and decision making is the prefrontal cortex. And neurological research shows that the operation of the prefrontal cortex is significantly inhibited by fear.

Put bluntly, if we allow ourselves, our teams and therefore our organisations to succumb to fear in the face of our uncertainty, we run the risk of paralysing our minds at the very time we need them to be at their most creative. Our focus should instead be on adopting attitudes and behaviours that activate the prefrontal cortex: or playing fearlessly.

Leaders of less overtly creative companies might be forgiven for thinking that fearless play is only for the Ben & Jerry’s of the world, along with advertising agencies and tech startups. But don’t be put off by the wording – you don’t need to install a slippery dip or introduce mandatory theatre sports workshops to play fearlessly. A powerful first step might be to practice shifting the tendency from ‘grey sky thinking’ to ‘blue sky thinking’. By actively focusing on ‘what are all the amazing things we could possibly do?’ instead of ‘what are all the terrible things that could go wrong?’, we increase dopamine levels, which engages the brain and, in the process, opens up a rich new arena of possibilities.

Whether organisations choose to embrace an attitude of fearless play or not, it’s a widely held opinion that resisting change is a non-option if you want to thrive in uncertainty.

As innovation advisor Larry Robertson said in his INC.com article ‘How to stay innovative during times of uncertainty’: “You can fight it, but the hard truth about uncertain times is that there is no returning to what was, only going forward to what will be. It takes creative thought, not in pockets but across a culture, to be able to reinvent and respond to a changing environment.”

If fear is the mind killer, creative thinking it would seem, is its kiss of life.

Simon Lee is executive creative director and partner of The Hallway.


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