Lesson #5: Don’t Be Afraid to Go After the Big Guys

Cohen and Greenfield were just a couple of hippies trying to avoid becoming simply “another cog in the economic machine.” Living through the 1960s, the two disliked big business for all of its negative social and environmental effects. With Ben & Jerry’s, the pair was trying to reconcile this by doing things their way, and placing heavy importance on acting responsibly.

In 1984, big business came after the little guys. Pillsbury, the million dollar company behind Haagen-Dazs, began to feel threatened by the rapid growth of Ben & Jerry’s. In an attempt to shut down the young upstarts, Pillsbury gave Ben & Jerry’s distributors throughout Boston an ultimatum: sell Hagen-Dazs or sell Ben & Jerry’s, but not both.

Cohen and Greenfield were not about to let this corporate giant shut them down. After finding little hope in their legal options, the two decided to take matters into their own hands. Together, they launched the now famous “What’s the doughboy afraid of?” campaign and began taking it as public as they could. From placing advertisements on the sides of buses to renting banner planes for flying around major sporting events, Cohen and Greenfield did whatever they could think of to gain support for their little business. They took out a classified ad in Rolling Stone magazine asking readers to “help two Vermont hippies fight the giant Pillsbury Corporation.” Greenfield even took to being a one-man picket outside the headquarters of Pillsbury in Minneapolis, handing out pamphlets that read, “What’s the doughboy afraid of?”

Later that year, Cohen and Greenfield came up with the idea of putting a 1-800 number on every pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. “We started getting like a hundred calls a night,” recalls Greenfield, “most of them between the hours of midnight and 3 a.m.” Many callers even offered to form gangs of Doughboy busters. Public interest and media attention surrounding the issue began to grow, most of which portrayed Pillsbury in a negative light – here was this evil corporate giant trying to put two young hippies out of business. Eventually, all of the bad press forced Pillsbury to renege on its ultimatum.

That year, Ben & Jerry’s sales reached over $4 million, a 120 percent increase from the year before. They had refused to be deterred by the threats of Pillsbury and the results would speak for themselves. That wouldn’t be the last time Pillsbury would come after Ben & Jerry’s, but it also wouldn’t be the last time the little guys fought back.

Today, the story of Ben & Jerry’s represents the champion of the little guys; two regular guys with a dream who fought for that dream to the death. They didn’t give up after realizing that their legal options were few and far between. Instead, using the creativity for which they have now become famous, Cohen and Greenfield came up with their own solution to the problem. By rallying people around their cause, the two were able to successfully take on their competitor.

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