Ben and Jerry’s in Africa and the Middle East – what next?

The decision by the Unilever-owned Ben & Jerry’s ice cream brand to end its partnership with its Israeli franchise partner over the issue of supply to Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian territories (oPT) has caused ripples for several reasons. One little discussion topic: how it will resonate with consumers in Africa and the Middle East.

One constant feature of modern Israeli foreign relations is that there is a disconnect with what are often friendly and cooperative relations at state diplomatic level but widespread negativity from ordinary consumers. Saudi Arabia and the UAE maintained strong back channel relations with Israel for years – a common wariness of Iran and populist Islamic parties uniting them – even while the man on the street still views Israel unfavourably.

A quick look at the Arab Center’s 2019-2020 Arab Opinion Index confirms this. Across the Arab world, almost 90% of people oppose diplomatic recognition of Israel.

Furthermore, the whole of North Africa and much of West Africa is Muslim majority – a good indicator of where people sit on the Israel / Palestine issue.

Will consumers care and if they do, what happens?

It doesn’t follow that consumers will rush to buy Ben & Jerry’s to celebrate their decision to withdraw from settlements. Most consumers don’t follow events closely except during flashpoints and while feelings can sometimes run high (for example, when French president Macron was seen to insult Muslims), they tend to recede for the most part. In most of Africa, Ben & Jerry’s has no presence, and few consumers could afford it anyway, so the point is somewhat moot.

Nonetheless, it’s an interesting case study. The warming of relations by Gulf states towards Israel has been followed, predictably, by a rush of positive coverage from state-aligned media. That will influence some consumers, but we doubt it will radically change hearts and minds.

If Arab consumers do start to buy more Ben & Jerry’s and the brand achieves an elevated status because of its stance on the oPT, it will prove embarrassing to Unilever and even more so to Gulf rulers and Egypt’s government.

Israel’s Prime Minister has promised an aggressive response. Although Ben & Jerry’s actions haven’t been taken in the name of the BDS movement, they are seen in that context by supporters of Palestine and Israel alike. Israel’s anti-BDS strategy has primarily focused on legal options (especially in the US, where several states have sought to criminalise it). To do that, it cannot allow BDS to gather popular momentum or the tactic of punishing the organisations/businesses that do engage in it loses power. Israel is also building a coalition of the willing in which a softening stance towards it is seen as opening the door to diplomatic favours from the US (Morocco, Sudan) or access to US military hardware (UAE, Egypt).

A short term upside in sales could see notoriously autocratic Gulf governments quietly sanction Ben & Jerry’s in order to spare Israel’s blushes. Certainly, when it looked like consumers might start to boycott French-owned businesses across the Middle East because of Macron’s comments, it was quickly quashed. This won’t be the case in Algeria, Libya or (rampant depreciation of the lira and hyperinflation notwithstanding) Lebanon.

The situation in sub-Saharan Africa

The situation in sub-Saharan Africa is different. Many leading distributors, especially in West and Central Africa, are ethnic Lebanese. Very few are overtly interested in politics – one of the key skills of distributors is to weather the political winds of change in what can be restless, dynamic and challenging markets. They’re also pragmatic; they don’t buy products consumers won’t buy. But given a choice, they could lean on the scales in favour of Ben & Jerry’s. The commercial impact to Unilever would be fairly minimal.

But some consumers are pro-Palestine. In May 2021, there were protests in support of Palestinians in Senegal and Nigeria, for example. The consumer dynamics among Muslim consumers within these countries differ from their non-Muslim counterparts. Most obviously, they don’t drink alcohol, opening up opportunities for manufacturers of soft drinks, tea, ice cream, confectionery and baked goods.

The other big market is South Africa, where the ANC-led government and many black voters see strong parallels between their own experiences of apartheid and Palestinian experiences of occupation. Unilever is a major player in the South African ice cream market, but Ben & Jerry’s is not available locally. So no upside unless something changes in the brand’s distribution profile.

Probably the biggest barriers in sub Saharan Africa are the price premium for Ben & Jerry’s and the fact that most consumers have a long list of other things to think about than political choices for their ice cream brand.

In Gulf states, the issue is more complex and we think some consumers will adopt the brand in light of its stance. However, if there is a commercial upside for Unilever we can guarantee it won’t be shouting about it.

The future of Ben & Jerry’s

Since its acquisition by Unilever, Ben & Jerry’s has operated with some independence from its parent company. The board of Ben & Jerry’s has clashed Unilever over the handling of the withdrawal of its products from Israeli settlements in the oPT and the wording of the statement.

Withdrawing the brand requires the ending of a license agreement with a local franchisee who manufactures and distributes Ben & Jerry’s in Israel. The Ben & Jerry’s board statement made no mention of the future of the brand in Israel. The Unilever statement stressed that the brand “will stay in Israel through a different arrangement.”

We think the Israeli government will put considerable resources into coercing Unilever to take a different stance. Is it enough that Unilever stresses that it will remain in Israel? Perhaps not. An obvious pressure point is Unilever’s position in the US ice cream market, although Israel can also target Unilever in Israel too, of course. Israel cannot afford for BDS – or actions construed as BDS – to become viable pillars of brands’ social justice stances.

In extremis, unless Unilever can fudge (excuse the pun) a way to allow Ben & Jerry’s to meet the Israeli requirement that Israel includes the settlements while satisfying the Ben & Jerry’s board’s hard won political values, then something has to give. Either Ben & Jerry’s brand values have to get the long feared corporate makeover or the brand has no future in Unilever’s portfolio.