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May 16

Heroes of simplicity

My new book, Think Simple, will be published on June 7th. While my previous book focused on the power of simplicity as practiced by Steve Jobs and Apple, the new one looks outward. I spent time with more than 40 business leaders around the world to learn how they succeed through simplicity. In the next couple of weeks, I’ll feature a few of their stories. Starting with this one…

BENNINGTON, VT - JULY 3: Jerry Greenfield and Ben Cohen, partners of a homemade ice cream stand, Ben & Jerry's, in Bennington, Vt. (Photo by Ted Dully/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Like many, I’ve been conscious of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream for most of my life.

Based simply on what I read, heard and tasted, my image of Ben & Jerry’s was (1) really good ice cream with outrageous mix-in flavors, and (2) a company that was pretty “out there.” It seemed that Ben and Jerry were basically hippies with their own take on how a company should be run.

Remember, these were the guys who once found a new CEO by running a “Yo! I’m your new CEO!” essay contest.

Ben and Jerry made it a point to have fun, but they were also outspoken in their belief that companies should do good in the world. They now have a history of being involved in the community and taking stands on social issues—oftentimes controversial ones.

Almost 40 years after its founding, the Ben & Jerry’s brand is still crystal-clear, more than ten years after the company was purchased by the the giant Unilever.

Surely there must be a simplicity story there, I thought. So I contacted Jerry Greenfield and drove up to Vermont one summer day to spend a morning with him. The story he told was not only enlightening—it helped me frame new questions I could put to other leaders during my research.

Ben & Jerry’s was born in the simplest possible way. They were just two guys who wanted to start a business. They learned how to make ice cream by taking a five-dollar correspondence course from Penn State University (my alma mater!). They sold their goodies out of a converted garage in Burlington, Vermont.

Jerry points out that what they did—mixing creamy ice cream with all kinds of tempting chunks—is actually complicated. The machines in those days couldn’t handle the job, so they had to mix their flavors by hand in the back room.

(That’s one of the most fascinating things about simplicity. What attracts people is how they perceive a product, not how hard it is to make.)

To get bigger, Ben and Jerry basically had to invent the machinery that would allow them to make ice cream their way. That took passion and determination, and it led to an audience beyond Burlington—with a presence in more than 30 countries.

But how did Ben & Jerry’s stay simple during all those years of growth? Especially after it was purchased by the giant Unilever more than ten years ago?

The answer is that the company had a mission, and that the mission was supported by a strong culture and deeply held values. These values act as a guideline for behaviors and decisions—not just in management but in the workforce as well. They keep the spirit alive.

It was because the founders were uncompromising about culture and values that Ben & Jerry’s continues to thrive today. The agreement with Unilever set up a structure that carved the company’s values in stone and continued to support its agenda for promoting social change.

Ben and Jerry have both earned their honorary “hero of simplicity” title. Together they created a successful company out of sheer passion, and kept it simple even as it went global.

Absolutely, there were moments along the way where complexity threatened to do serious damage to what the founders had built. But they were able to learn from their mistakes and keep the company focused on its mission—which is much more than great ice cream.

There’s more from Jerry Greenfield and many other business leaders in Think Simple. If you’re interested in reading, keep in mind that there’s a fun little gift for everyone who pre-orders before June 7th. Details here.

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  • so great, as usual!

    Hey Ken, the first book looking inward was fantastic. the second, looking outward, sounds even more amazing (and the interviews will be priceless- can’t wait to read what you’ve given us! im so excited!)

    one request for a future book: I’d love to read something with real specific examples of how leaders and marketing managers turned something complex into something simple. specific examples of moments that mystified decision makers, super big challenges on what to include or not include during a marketing campaign or in a company philosophy or whatever. you’ve said time and again that it’s not so much what you DO put on your website (or marketing materials), etc… but what you DO NOT put there… I’d love to be taken to the back room of some agencies or decision makers during a tough time, while they are trying to figure out what to delete and learn what took place and why.

    Perhaps this book does that – not sure since it’s not out yet =) but if not, i’d love to read up on this someday!

    thanks- and thanks for all you do and contribute to marketing and simplicity! it’s life changing!

  • hannahjs

    I’m glad you’re continuing to write books. Blogs alone are as ephemeral as reputations. There has to be a continuing tolling of the bell in a land of tone-deaf millenials. If your new book makes its way into even one SV boardroom and gets quoted there, and discussed, it could make a big difference in what consumers see, hear, and feel about their providers of goods.

  • yep!

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