A Business Icon’s Thoughts on the Marijuana Industry: Q&A With Ben & Jerry’s Co-Founder

By Chris Walsh

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield developed one of the most iconic consumer brands in the country by using high-end ingredients, unique packaging and creative flavors with memorable names – some of which resonate well with the cannabis community.

But the two are known for much more than the wildly popular Ben & Jerry’s line of ice cream.

Cohen and Greenfield also helped pioneer the concept of corporate social responsibility, which arguably contributed as much to the success of the Ben & Jerry’s brand as the ice cream itself.

This also resonates well with the cannabis community: While plenty of marijuana entrepreneurs hope to one day gain the same level of brand recognition and national reach as Ben & Jerry’s, they also see themselves as forces for social change.

Marijuana Business Daily reached out to Cohen ahead of his keynote presentation on Nov. 13 at the Marijuana Business Conference & Expo to get his thoughts on the cannabis industry, social responsibility and what budding entrepreneurs can learn from his experience building an ice cream empire:

You’re seen as someone who is friendly to the marijuana cause. Is this accurate, and in what way?

Yeah, it’s definitely accurate. I’ve always viewed marijuana as a substance that is safe, that’s beneficial and enjoyable and that has tremendous health benefits. It’s also good just for people who want to relax. And as a recreational drug it’s a lot safer than alcohol.

You helped Ben & Jerry’s develop several flavors that the marijuana crowd can identify with, such as Cherry Garcia and Phish Food. How did you come up them, and were you looking to target cannabis users?

No, we weren’t trying to target a specific demographic, other than fans of those bands.

Cherry Garcia came to be because we received an anonymous postcard one day from two guys who said they were real Dead Heads and also Ben & Jerry’s fans, and they thought we should come up with a flavor that would serve as a tribute to Jerry Garcia.

, A Business Icon’s Thoughts on the Marijuana Industry: Q&A With Ben & Jerry’s Co-Founder

That resonated with me tremendously. It was the first flavor we ever came out with related to a person, and the reason we did it is because we believed in the philosophy, the ethos and the values of the Grateful Dead and the Grateful Dead community.

Any lessons you can share about using the name of a famous person or band for a product?

If you’re going to play off somebody’s name, you must have their (explicit) permission. With Cherry Garcia, we actually developed the flavor and were about to come out with it and someone said, hey, you really have to ask Jerry and make sure it’s alright with him.

A woman we met who had some connections with the Grateful Dead asked Jerry, and then came back and said he didn’t care. So we came out with it. Then we got a call from a lawyer saying that Jerry liked the flavor but didn’t get a piece of the action. So we started giving royalties.

How do you see the cannabis business developing?

I have the feeling that it’s in some ways kind of in an analogous situation to the organic food industry, which was essentially started by true believers – alternative kinds of people who are very entrepreneurial. Then eventually the big food companies and venture capitalists came in.

At first the big food companies were fighting it, then they realized “oh man, there’s money to be made here,” and they ended up buying out these small entrepreneurs.

That’s what I see happening in your industry.

At what point do you think large mainstream companies – such as Ben & Jerry’s or big-name retailers – will get involved in the cannabis industry?

The thing about big mainstream companies is that they tend to be national, or even international, and they’re not interested in something that they can only sell in one or two states. Also, mainstream companies are more risk averse. They’re also very slow at innovation… they tend to buy innovation in the form of acquiring a little company that took risks and was innovative and successful.

I would tend to think that the way it’s going to go in the marijuana industry. One of the small companies that’s based now in Colorado or Washington (State) is going be successful, or likely more than one will be successful and a few will rise to the top. I think that those companies will just start distributing product in other states as it becomes legal, and eventually they might get acquired by a bigger company.

How can entrepreneurs in the cannabis industry get the funding they need to grow but maintain control of the company and keep their values?

I think that the world of capitalism – and the world of capital – will tell you that you have to give up your values in order to play the game.

Our experience is that you do not have to do that. You just have to stand firm.

When Ben & Jerry’s was going public, we were negotiating with our underwriters, and we wanted to put in the prospectus that we were forming a Ben & Jerry’s foundation that would get 10% of our pretax profits. People said “oh no, there’s no way you can do that and have so much money consistently leaving the company.”

Eventually we got up to 5%, and then we compromised at 7.5%. That’s still a significant amount and very unusual.

Partnerships are key in the cannabis industry, and you’ve had one of the most successful partnerships in American business with your friend Jerry. How did you manage your relationship with him?

A big part of the key to our success is that we were really good friends since junior high school, and so there was a tremendous amount of trust and respect for each other. I think where we wanted to go with the business and what we wanted to accomplish was really aligned.

But probably the most important thing is that we each had very defined roles and responsibilities. He was in charge of production, I was in charge of sales and marketing. Each of us had freedom and autonomy in our areas.

How did you handle larger strategic decisions about the company that both of you had to weigh in on?

We decided at the start that the one whose area of responsibility it fell under had the final say. The other principle was that the person who felt most strongly about a particular issue ended up getting their way.

The other tool we had was the veto. If someone felt really, really strongly about something they got to veto it. This was something we used very, very rarely, maybe only three times ever.

Many cannabis companies are trying to expand into multiple states now, especially edibles manufacturers. What challenges did you run into?

In our case distributors didn’t really do what they said they were going to do, and they didn’t really support the product. They didn’t really care what they sold.

What they wanted was exclusives. They tell you all these things to get your account and get you to go exclusive with them, and once you give them that they’re not motivated to get your product into other stores.

Also, the distributor comes between you and your customer and you don’t get to interact and communicate with your customer.

What’s your top tip for building a nationwide brand? How do you build buzz?

The major way people heard about Ben & Jerry’s was articles in the media that were written because of the way we were running our business, the social mission of the company. It was news and it was innovative. Other companies hadn’t been doing anything like that.

We were, for instance, sourcing ingredients in a way that helped Native Americans or helped preserve rain forests.

I also think that our flavors were unique, as was our packaging. Everyone’s packaging looked the same. They were all trying to imitate Haagen Dazs and pretending to be from foreign countries. Ours used hand lettering.

Aside from all this, the ice cream was incredibly high quality.

Any chance you’d personally get involved on the business side of the cannabis industry, and if so, what would it take?

I might. First, the business would need to be values led in a way that benefits people who have traditionally been oppressed. Second it would need to be committed to remaining independent. Third, it would need to be profitable.