Has Ben & Jerry's Lost Its Way?

09/09/2011 03:52 pm ET | Updated Nov 09, 2011

Ben & Jerry's launched a new ice cream this week, "Schweddy Balls," in honor of Alec Baldwin's old Saturday Night Live skit. In an instant, Twitter was abuzz. Schweddy Balls and Ben & Jerry's both zoomed to the top of the trending list. Mashable wrote about it, as did a number of other media outlets.

However, the new ice creams looks like another indicator that the great Ben & Jerry's brand has lost their way.

The brand has always gone its own way. From the idea of putting lots of things in ice cream to committing itself to social justice, Ben & Jerry's has always stood out. It's done so by taking stands that are true to Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield's philosophy, but it's always used a large dose of humor and word play.

Once it launched Cherry Garcia, it also embraced an alternative, hippy style that was also true to the Vermont brand. It followed that with flavors like Phish Food, but also Chubby Hubby, One Sweet Whirled, Karamel Sutra and Half Baked, to name a few. Clever names, names that made you stop, think and laugh.

This year, however, we're seeing names like "Clusterfluff" and "Schweddy Balls." To which I can only respond "WTF?"

I wonder if Ben & Jerry's is losing market share to younger college audiences and 20 somethings. Clearly, that's where the brand is headed, with names like these. They're certainly not targeting the people who buy Chubby Hubby. If so, that's a major shift for the brand. What competition are they afraid of?

Maybe they've just run out of creativity. For the past few years, it seems like half the flavors at the scoop shop have chocolate in their names. There's also been a lot of focus on celebrity co-branding with Colbert and Jimmy Fallon. And now Alec Baldwin.

Clearly, though, Schweddy Balls and Clusterfluff show that Ben & Jerry's have crossed an invisible brand line. Branding "expert" Allen Adamson from the venerable agency Landor Associates explains what's happening in an AP article:

'You don't get noticed today without taking some risks. If you do something that offends no one, you won't get noticed,' he said."

In one sentence, Landor redefined branding as offending someone.

That's not the Ben & Jerry's brand. They've never been offensive. They've stood for what they believe, yes, even when it hasn't been popular. They've been true to who they are, but always done so with a twinkle in their eye. But, offensive, never.

I admit, as a Vermonter, I'm overly sensitive to our Vermont brands. Maybe it's because we don't have so many. In the last year, we've seen our beloved Magic Hat forced to sell to a beer distributor and watched the exodus of key people who made the brand what it is today.

I remember going to the original Ben & Jerry's in the old gas station across from the park and listening to Don Rose (the tallest guy in our shul, no less) playing the piano. I saw first hand as they expanded to Europe. I still follow what Cohen and Greenfield do to support sustainability and local businesses. And I've always enjoyed eating and laughing at the crazy flavors, even Sweet Potato Pie.

But Schweddy Balls or Clusterfluff? No thanks. I'm sure they'll be successful from a marketing standpoint, but from a brand standpoint they are way off. It's certainly not anything I'd bring home to the kids.

As a final nail in the coffin, there's a quote from the AP article

"The company's not worried about offending people with the name,spokesman Sean Greenwood said. 'We're the caring company,' Greenwood said Thursday."

If you have to say it, it's not true.