Transnational Research Associates

Ben and Jerry’s: Does This Firm Belong in Japan?

Art Madsen, M.Ed.

Is entering the Japanese market for super-premium ice cream consistent with Ben and Jerry’s social mission?  Can any conflict be worked out to the satisfaction of Ben Cohen and other Board Members?


·        Initially, Ben Cohen, one of the co-founders of Ben and Jerry’s, was reluctant to enter the Japanese Market.  Just as in France, where many aspects of French political policy were contrary to Ben and Jerry’s social mission, Cohen felt that Japan’s posture did not offer an ideal environment for marketing their products.  He also knew that market penetration in Japan would require a major marketing and management thrust, in view of the many barriers erected by Japanese business interests.


·        Additionally, from a purely business standpoint, Haagen-Daz, if Ben and Jerry’s were to enter the Japanese market, would already be light years ahead of Ben and Jerry’s, because Haagen-Daz’ sales in Japan alone amounted to twice Ben and Jerry’s worldwide sales.  Cohen’s reluctance was eventually overridden, however, and Ben and Jerry’s was seriously considering entering the booming Japanese ice cream market. Indeed, Japanese ice cream sales had soared from 1990 to 1995 by a factor of nearly 175%, from US$ 2.6 Billion to US$ 4.5 Billion in that brief span of time.


·        Ben and Jerry’s efforts to break into the Japanese market were considerable, even though the host country was not environmentally friendly or even receptive to the notion of corporate charity – which had always been high on Cohen and Greenfield’s agenda.


·        The conflicts initially experienced between Ben and Jerry’s social outlook, or corporate culture, and Japanese society could be, it was generally agreed, worked out by the intervention of intermediaries such as Masaki Iida, of 7-11, who agreed to provide a retail market channel for Ben and Jerry’s products.  Further, Bob Holland helped to conceptualize marketing strategies and social stances that could be reasonably adapted to Japan.  In fact, he smoothed over some of the ‘rough spots’ that might have alienated Cohen and Greenfield.


·        It must be remembered that Cohen’s co-partner, Jerry Greenfield, was quite interested in Japan in spite of a ‘lack of a social mission’, and Greenfield’s marketing employee, Valerie, had excellent contacts in Japan – who helped brush aside obstacles and created a business friendly transactional base.


·        So, after initial talks, a strategy to “piggy-back” Ben and Jerry’s products on the established distribution networks of Dreyer’s, Dominos and 7-11 was considered workable – without objections from Cohen.


·        This is not to say that some prospects for distribution of Ben and Jerry’s products could be easily negotiated.  In fact, because of Ben and Jerry’s outspoken criticism of Mitsubishi’s deforestation policies, a subsidiary of Mitsubishi (known as Meiji Milk Products) was never able to obtain even a potential contract to distribute Ben and Jerry’s products, even though they wanted to do so. This type of “denial” appeased Cohen.


·        On balance, Ben and Jerry’s was offered two major options for distribution in Japan.  One was through 7-11, and another through Yamada, a frozen-food distributor.  Because the Yen was quite strong in the first stages of Ben and Jerry’s negotiating process, in relation to the US Dollar, it was financially attractive to Ben and Jerry to go ahead with this scheme.


·        However, at the last moment, the Bangkok Bank of Commerce was unable to honor its financial commitments to foreign banks throughout Asia, plunging the whole continent into chaos.  The Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 and 1998 destroyed hopes for Ben and Jerry’s potential operations in Japan.


·        Nonetheless, through intervention of professional marketing intermediaries, the social mission of Ben and Jerry’s would not have necessarily directly conflicted with the policies and practices of Japanese business and industry.  Indeed, all potential conflicts were worked out to the satisfaction of Cohen and the Board Members – even though our Case Study ends at the point where a major decision [between distributing via 7-11 or Yamada] had to be made. 


·        No actual sales of Ben and Jerry’s products are therefore actually mentioned in this particular study, but the stage had been set for what would have been a successful experience, free of conflicts between the Vermont firm’s social mission and Japanese cultural and social practices.