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GMOs vs. Ben & Jerry’s? The war is on

ben-jerry-gmoWhile most companies in the U.S. seem not to favor the hot issue of GMO labeling, one company is stepping up (again) in support of natural ingredients and better food. According to Businessweek, Unilever CEO Paul Polman and Ben & Jerry’s CEO Jostein Solheim recently shared a meal with Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin. Two days later, Shumlin signed the nation’s first GMO labeling law.

Businessweek called the move a “swirl of savvy public relations, financial backing, and grassroots activism.” I have to agree.

There is no doubt that this move puts Ben & Jerry’s squarely in the crosshairs of some of the world’s largest food companies. And, while Unilever has repeatedly come out against GMO labeling, the company seems content to allow its subsidiary to become the face of the movement.

By taking this stance, Unilever can play both sides of the fence to a point. First, it can protect its larger interests by fighting GMO labeling where it is unlikely to fly, while also allowing Ben & Jerry’s to support it in places – like Vermont – where the cause has established grassroots support. It’s an undeniable PR win-win.

And, of course, the alternative – trying to keep Ben & Jerry’s, a traditionally environmentally active company, away from this issue could have disastrous PR results. That’s not to say Unilever can keep this up for too long. Eventually, someone will point out the fence-sitting and call them on it.

And, that could lead to some truly interesting public relations scenarios. If activists decide to really ramp up the pressure on Unilever to publicly back its subsidiary, things could get ugly, quick. Pushed into a corner and forced to decide between its overarching interests and entertaining the PR reputation of one of its more popular subsidiaries could put Unilever into a proverbial “tiger by the tail” situation. You don’t want to let go, but, eventually, you might have to.

 That’s when you get bit.


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