Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams: 4 Crisis Lessons From a Purpose Driven Brand

In Culture, Change, Purpose, Mission & Values

Open a business, any business, and the one thing you can be sure of is that there will be a crisis to overcome. What kind of crisis and when? Who can tell. But if you start with a strong set of values and a clear purpose – one bigger than profit – these challenges can be met head-on and overcome. Managed well, you can even come through stronger than you started.

Here at Storyforge, we are not shy about admitting when we have a crush. We love brands, and the brands we love the most … we really, really love. Southwest Airlines is one, and Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams is another. If we fly, we fly Southwest. And if we want a treat … it’s down the block to our local scoop shop for our favorite flavors.

In April, the team at Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams “received the call that no ice cream maker, chef, or entrepreneur wants.” A randomly selected pint of their ice cream had tested positive for Listeria monocyctogenes. With an “abundance of caution,” they made a quick decision to shutter their production kitchens and retail “scoop” shops and recall all ice cream products. To the tune of about $2.5 million (and that was just the begining). This week, almost 5 months since the start of the crisis, Jeni’s announced the reopening of their production kitchen and the return of their award-winning Salty Caramel flavor (arguably, the flavor that made Jeni’s famous). You can read Jeni Britton Bauer – founder, president and chief creative officer of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams – talk about this change in her announcement yesterday.

Observing Jeni’s operations these last five months, we have concluded that there are 4 advantages purpose-led companies have during a crisis:

#1: Your purpose and values will be your true north.
When your values are not just a piece of paper, but part of how you operate and integral to your company’s culture the decisions you make are a direct reflection of those values. They become a filter for your thinking.

For Jeni’s their purpose is two-fold:  making better ice creams and bringing people together. In their people, and themselves, they value three qualities in pursuit of that purpose: talent, hustle, and guts. Together these formed guiding principles (about what they are here to do, why and how they do it) that shown through over the last 5 months. Asked about the decision to cease production, close shops and recall products, Jeni explained: “Every single person in the entire company … would have made the same decision. I don’t think that we had any discussion; it was the clear and obvious thing to do.” Jeni’s also paid laid-off employees, and deployed kitchen staff to other roles to keep them employed as long as possible during the crisis. Not a profitable thing to do, but the right thing to do. “We were proud to be able to do [it],” Jeni said.

#2: Your customers will be patient.
Reputational capital is like a bank account. You deposit the good as often as you can, and draw on it when you need to. Jeni’s has proven time and time again that they are first and foremost a community of fellowship and a fellowship of community.

During the early weeks of the crisis, customers posted hundreds of notes of encouragement on the doors of the shuttered shops. They took to social media to share their support – with one group creating a Facebook event, where thousands of people committed to buying a pint when the shops opened up again.

#3: Your partners ARE your team.
When Jeni’s was forced to close their production kitchen for the second time, the team at Smith Dairy stepped in to not only source the dairy products for Jeni’s (as they had for years), but also produce their basic ice creams, so the Jeni’s team could focus on what they do best. In the announcement Jeni explained “We built this company as a community—Jeni’s is about fellowship—and our partnership with Smith’s is just one of many recent examples of that.”

#4: Your competitors are not the enemy.
During the crisis, Jeni’s team received calls from all of the heritage ice cream makers in Ohio, and a few from outside the state, all offering to help. “Johnson’s invited us to use their kitchen. Pierre’s, Toft’s, and Velvet—as Smith’s did—offered to make our ice creams to our specifications with their equipment.” When you lead with profit, all those seeking to make profit in a similar way are your competitors. When you lead with purpose, all those who share your purpose are with you.

We love Jeni’s for many reasons, not the least of which is how the team – guided by their purpose and values – managed a major crisis this year. And we’re happy to have them back.

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Haley Boehning is a principle at Storyforge. Building on 20+ years driving change for Fortune 500 clients, non-profits and start-ups, Haley has developed a pragmatic approach to change through storytelling, developing relevant, consistent and emotionally compelling messages and targeted communications strategies that help brand and culture triumph in times of great change.