Unilever recently announced it wants to separate its ice cream division from its portfolio, placing the well-known Ben & Jerry’s brand on the path to acquisition. This decision is aligned with Unilever’s Growth Action Plan (GAP), aimed at refining the company’s focus towards core business segments that promise higher growth and profitability. 

The divestiture of the ice cream business, including Ben & Jerry’s, is anticipated to enhance Unilever’s operational focus while allowing potential buyers to own a brand renowned for its ethical stance, environmental initiatives, and inventive flavors. 

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Ben & Jerry’s, with its strong brand identity and commitment to social causes, represents a unique opportunity in the market. The ice cream division’s reported turnover of €7.9 billion (more than $8.5 billion) in 2023 underscores the significant market presence and financial performance of Unilever’s ice cream brands. 

“The Board is determined to transform Unilever into a higher-growth, higher-margin business that will deliver consistently for all stakeholders,” Ian Meakins, Chair of Unilever, said in a statement.

“Improving our performance and sharpening our portfolio are key to delivering the improved results we believe Unilever can achieve,” Meakins said. 

The impending sale of Ben & Jerry’s marks a significant shift for Unilever and presents a compelling opportunity for prospective buyers to steer one of the ice cream industry’s most distinctive brands toward new horizons.

Ben & Jerry’s vegan ice cream business

In 2016, Ben & Jerry’s first got into the dairy-free ice cream business with the launch of almond milk-based remakes of four of its classics. In the years that followed, Ben & Jerry’s created memorable vegan pints, some together with celebrities such as Colin Kaepernick, Ava DuVarney, Stephen Colbert, and Jimmy Fallon, to name a few. 

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From Cherry Garcia to Phish Food, Ben & Jerry’s most popular flavors are now available in a dairy-free format, making the business attractive to potential sustainability-minded buyers with a sweet tooth. 

After experimenting with several bases, this spring, Ben & Jerry’s will switch all of its dairy-free pints to an oat milk base, a step toward even more inclusion given the allergen-friendly nature of the vegan base. 

Who should buy Ben & Jerry’s?

As Unilever seeks to streamline its operations and focus on its core business segments, the innovative strides taken by Ben & Jerry’s in the vegan ice cream space present an unmatched value proposition and its readiness to thrive under new ownership.

So who should buy this legendary brand? We have some thoughts.

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1 Vegan Food Group (VFG)

Founded by chef Adam Lyons and Veganuary co-founder Matthew Glover, United Kingdom-based VFG has rapidly evolved from its inception as a vegan fried chicken brand (then called “VFC”) to a burgeoning conglomerate in the vegan food space.

With the acquisition of Meatless Farm and Clive’s Purely Plants, VFG has expanded to more than 80 product offerings across 21,00 points of sale. This showcases success in integrating and scaling up brands within its portfolio and demonstrates VFG’s impressive operational capacity that would be taken to new heights with the Ben & Jerry’s brand. 

This positions VFG as a capable steward for Ben & Jerry’s, that can uphold and expand the ice cream brand’s vegan line. Plus, VFG has a stated ambition to become “vegan Unilever” making this acquisition a deal that is just waiting to happen. 

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2 Jeff Bezos

In recent years, entrepreneur Jeff Bezos has positioned himself as a key player in the movement toward a plant-forward food system. 

Through his Bezos Earth Fund, the Amazon founder recently made a $60 million pledge to foster the growth of sustainable protein sources, including plant-based and cultivated meat. This commitment is part of a broader $10 billion initiative to combat climate change.

His investment aims to overcome technological barriers, reduce costs, and improve the quality and nutritional benefits of alternative proteins. This focus on innovation and sustainability could make Bezos an ideal candidate to further develop and expand Ben & Jerry’s vegan ice cream business, leveraging the brand’s existing commitment to social and environmental issues.

The creation of the Centers for Sustainable Protein by the Bezos Earth Fund, aimed at advancing science and technology in the field of alternative proteins, bolsters his ambition to lead a significant shift in the food industry. 

Under Bezos’ ownership, Ben & Jerry’s could benefit from increased investment in research and development, potentially leading to breakthroughs in vegan ice cream formulations and further solidifying the brand’s position as a leader in sustainable food practices.

Plus, Bezos’ foundation is a major supporter of the “Beans Is How” campaign that promotes beans as a nutritious, plant protein that’s good for the planet. Should Bezos acquire Ben & Jerry’s, we could really get behind an “Ice Cream Is How” campaign that promotes vegan pints as a sustainable solution to dairy. 

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3 Bill Gates

Bill Gates, known for investing in innovative solutions to climate change, has heavily focused on transforming the food system.  

His investments in companies such as Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, and Upside Foods (focusing on cultivated meat) reflect a shared goal with Ben & Jerry’s: to reduce the environmental footprint of our diets without compromising on taste or quality. 

Gates’ backing of Motif Foods (which aims to enhance the flavor and texture of alternative proteins) and Savor (a company creating real fat molecules without involving animals) could further drive innovation in Ben & Jerry’s vegan product line. These innovations could potentially close the gap in flavor between plant-based and dairy-based ice creams, making them indistinguishable from their dairy counterparts. 

And a little-known fact is that Gates absolutely loves chocolate chip cookies and sometimes bakes them himself. If he owned Ben & Jerry’s, he could eat all the non-dairy Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough his heart desires. 

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4 Leonardo DiCaprio

Actor Leonardo DiCaprio’s track record as an environmental activist and investor in sustainable ventures positions him as an exemplary candidate to take the helm of Ben & Jerry’s. 

DiCaprio’s investment in companies such as Beyond Meat, Aleph Farms, and Neat (formerly “Neat Burger”) highlights his commitment to reducing the environmental impact of animal agriculture. 

Currently, Unilever is working to slash 14,000 metric tons of carbon emissions annually at four of its factories in the US—where Ben & Jerry’s and other ice cream brands operate. This involves adopting electric boilers and industrial heat pumps that use waste heat recovery. 

With DiCaprio’s help, this decarbonization could move a lot faster by transitioning all of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream business to oat milk—which carries a lighter footprint than commercial dairy.

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5 You

Listen, if you have the money to buy Ben & Jerry’s we think you should beat all of these people to the punch. We can imagine owning it comes with some major perks like hanging out with Flavor Gurus to concoct the next vegan flavor. 

There are likely trips to the company’s Vermont ice cream factory where you probably not only taste the newest in dairy-free innovation but make a giant bowl of snack mix using Ben & Jerry’s cookie dough, vegan marshmallows, pretzels, and its other vegan mix-ins. 

And if you do acquire Ben & Jerry’s, maybe you can finally convince it to leave the “happy cows” alone by removing all the dairy from the brand to make it entirely sustainable and ethical.

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