Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Ironies of Ice Cream

Softserve ice cream
Summertime Ice Cream

In my area, in the summer, there are suddenly lots of little places selling ice cream.  Soft ice cream is the most popular, but there's plenty of hard ice cream available also.  In the summer, I prefer softserve ice cream.  It's a treat I can't get during the rest of the year.

I mean, I can always buy excellent hard ice cream at the grocery store. But you just can't beat the ice-cream experience of having a soft-serve cone while sitting outside on a summer day.  My local place (Newt's Ice Cream) is  the same place that my neighbors go.  Therefore, a trip for ice cream can also be a chance for a chat.

Vermont's iconic ice cream is a hard ice cream: Ben & Jerry's.  According to the Ben & Jerry's website,  their "Cherry Garcia" ice cream even has a street named after it in Burlington Vermont.  I can understand that.  Cherry Garcia is my favorite hard ice cream.

Unilever and me

Though I love Cherry Garcia ice cream,  Ben & Jerry's is not my favorite Vermont business.  It's among my least favorite, really.

A few years ago,  I attempted to debate Duane Peterson about Vermont Yankee.  Peterson is the former major-domo (his title was "Chief of Stuff") for Ben and Jerry's.  The company is part of "Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility," a group of businesses that support Governor Shumlin and supported the state's attempts to shut down Vermont Yankee. 

In my encounter with Peterson, he distinguished himself by refusing to debate me at a school assembly: he insisted on a giving a separate speech. When he did speak to the students, he made fun of Entergy as a "Southern" company. He imitated a Southern accent, to get laughs.  In my opinion, he behaved in a way that was both cowardly and prejudiced.  But hey...I didn't actually chat with the guy.  He might be an absolutely terrific human being.

Okay.  I know what I think of Peterson.  But I don't know what to think of Ben & Jerry's ice cream.  They joined a business group fighting Vermont Yankee.  On the other hand, despite the word "Vermont" all over their advertising, Ben & Jerry's is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Unilever, a Dutch-British company. It has been a subsidiary since 2000.

At this point, Unilever has continued to encourage the Vermont company's social activism.  I believe they do so because quirkiness (for example, "chief of stuff") and "Vermont social responsibility" are important parts of the Ben & Jerry's brand identity.  Still, Unilever is a multi-national company, like many other such companies, and it's not worth getting too exercised about their policies.

Hard Facts on Hard Ice Cream

Hard Ice Cream
My son-in-law Vijay and I were sitting companionably at Newt's earlier this summer, and we were talking about ice cream. I was having a softserve ice cream and he was having a hard ice cream.  Vijay is from India.

He told me that he hadn't realized there was such a thing as "hard ice cream" until he came to America.  He had enjoyed a lot of soft ice cream as a boy, but hard ice cream was not something he had encountered.

So we talked about this.  For soft ice cream, you need an ice cream machine, but not much other infrastructure.  You make the ice cream where people are planning to eat it.  Hard ice cream is a different story.  You make it a factory,  and then you put it in a freezer truck which keeps the ice cream cold and delivers it to a store.  Then, at the store, it is put into a big freezer.  At the store, someone buys the pint of Cherry Garcia and takes it home.  At home, conveniently enough, there's another freezer, waiting happily for some pints of ice cream to arrive.   You need a lot of freezers to deliver a pint of hard ice cream.

In short, hard ice cream is a very energy-intensive food, at least compared to soft ice cream.

Irony, Ice Cream, and Energy

It surprises me that the local makers of hard ice cream have campaigned against the green inexpensive power supplied by Vermont Yankee.   What were they thinking?

Well, okay.  They weren't thinking about their product itself. They were building a "socially-conscious" brand.  But I'm socially conscious, too!  I have a new idea for how we might save energy in the future.  We should all give up hard ice cream.

Bye-bye, Cherry Garcia!


Mike Empey said...

I have an even better idea Meredith. Lets pass a law (patterned after the GMO labeling law in VT)that says any business for social responsibility must label their products saying where and how the electricity they used to produce it was produced. Furthermore lets require they tell us(on the label) how much energy each major step of the process took per unit produced. That is reasonable right??? (My biggest fear being about this bit of tongue in cheek is that some VT Progressive or Progressive in Democratic sheepskins will say brilliant idea lets do it!)

Meredith Angwin said...

Thanks Mike! And thanks for the explanation, too. Someone was sure to take you seriously.

Also, I should have said I used to love Cherry Garcia ice cream. I don't buy it any more. I have found other excellent chocolate-cherry ice creams. Blue Bunny has a good one.

After attempting to debate Peterson, I just plain stopped buying Ben & Jerry's.

Rod Adams said...


I think you have hit the nail on the head - Ben & Jerry's is a brand with a carefully constructed propaganda campaign designed to attract a certain kind of customer.

That effectively created brand produced a large number of highly devoted followers who were willing to pay luxury good prices for a product that is essentially a commodity. As you found out, there are plenty of replacement products with just as good a taste experience, even if they do not have the brand identity.

The primary asset that Unilever - which is a marketing company that is all about "brands" - purchased when they purchased Ben & Jerry's was that carefully constructed identity. Business school grads who focused on marketing know all about "brands" and what it is worth to have a recognizable product that people pay higher than commodity prices to purchase.

As shown by Unilever's decisions subsequent to the purchase, their money-making strategy is to maintain the surface identity of the brand while working hard to take advantage of their scale as an international company to drive down costs.

I suspect that a major part of the reason they campaigned against VY is that they were enhancing their brand without affecting their cost reduction strategy since they have no intention of maintaining much of their production and distribution centers in Vermont. Please take no offense, but your land-locked, remote-location state is just not well suited for producing a national product like ice cream.

It will be convenient and good business for Unilever to maintain a visible presence in Vermont, but many of the large signs will be hiding empty factories and warehouses. The British-Dutch conglomerate cares little about the price or reliability of electricity in Vermont.

Tom Clegg said...

Meredith this is one of my pet peeves. You know I work at Indian Point. I have on occasions seen people I work with eating Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. I have even seen people I work with at the store buying the product. When I turn to them and tell them that Ben & Jerry signed a partition of businesses to close VY. I get answers like I like the ice cream, So it won’t close IP. They go right on eating it. This has got to stop! It isn’t just Ben & Jerry’s. How many people in the industry watch 30 Rock. Alex Baldwin is a big anti- nuke. Billy Joel and Kristy Brinkley are big anti nukes. My point is how many people that work in the industry know this and still buy products that they endorse. How come we are not writing to their sponsors and telling them we won’t buy their product as long as they advertise on their shows or us them as spokes persons. In closing what frustrates me is the lack of concern if it does not affect their plant.