Vermont is making headlines this week with major players stepping up in support of cannabis legalization. In his State of the State address, Gov. Peter Shumlin outlined his plan to end cannabis prohibition. Former state Attorney General Kimberly Cheney followed suit the next morning, officially endorsing the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana.
Cheney’s endorsement is no small thing, coming from a staunch Republican and the state’s former top law enforcement official. Shumlin has spent the past year studying legalization lessons from Colorado, and his push bodes well for major change in Vermont this year. Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, another Vermonter, famously proposed ending federal prohibition late last year.
So where are Ben & Jerry?
It seems odd that the men and brand synonymous with both cannabis and Vermont have kept mum when it comes to legalization.
Ben & Jerry’s, the company, isn’t afraid of taking on large social issues. In 2009, the ice cream maker came out in support of marriage equality, temporarily renaming its Chubby Hubby flavor to Hubby Hubby to celebrate and support same-sex marriage. Last summer Ben & Jerry’s launched the Climate Justice tour, giving away free ice cream to raise awareness for climate change.
But when Leafly reached out to the company for an official statement on legalization, public relations director Sean Greenwood (officially, “Grand Poobah of PR”) replied that “We do not have a company position on that issue.” In an email Greenwood added: “If you want to talk about GMO labeling legalization — then we’ve got lots to discuss!”
Clearly the company’s not afraid to take a stand. It’s just chosen not to stand for this particular issue. Which seems odd for an ice cream maker famous for tongue-in-cheek, cannabis-inspired names such as Half Baked, Cherry Garcia, Phish Food, and Hazed & Confused.
We reached out to Juda Engelmayer, Senior Vice President at 5W Public Relations, to get a better understanding of the opportunities and obstacles companies face when taking a stand on the complex topic of cannabis legalization. Englemayer handles strategic and crisis communications for clients ranging from entertainment acts to national retail brands.
Engelmayer acknowledged the possibility of negative blowback.
“There could be advocacy groups, anti-legalization groups that might try to besmirch the name or the brand, making the argument that they’re promoting drug use and marijuana, people who follow the issue very closely, but the fact is that this is not El Chapo we’re talking about.”
The upside could be big, though.
“The Ben & Jerry’s brand is Vermont hipsters,” Engelmeyer said. “They’ve always been ahead of the curve – exciting and cutting edge. I don’t believe [supporting legalization] would hurt the brand at all. I feel like this could be part of the brand. They’ve always appealed to adults and primarily college students. … This could help the issue and it really speaks to who Ben & Jerry are. They’ve always been current and on-trend.”
Although the company has taken no official stance, they know how to target the cannabis demographic. Last year the company released a Half Baked BRR-ito on April 20, the unofficial cannabis holiday. At the time, co-founder Ben Cohen was asked whether the founders would consider releasing their own line of cannabis-infused ice cream. “Makes sense to me,” he replied. “Combine your pleasures.”
We asked Engelmayer about the potential risks and rewards of creating a cannabis-infused ice cream for sale in a legal recreational market.
“Any products they created or sold would be subject to rules and regulations. They would have to take special consideration to avoid obvious marketing to children, but [creating a product for adults] would be good for the bottom line,” he said. “They would be making money and it would funny, kitschy even. Any criticism would fall by the wayside as long as they pay close attention to their marketing to keep it directed at adults.”