Ben & Jerry’s hopes for a warm reception

by Daniel Robson

Staff Writer

Say goodbye to your waistline: Ben & Jerry’s is back in Japan — and this time the world-famous ice-cream brand means business.

On April 14, Ben & Jerry’s will open its very first Scoop Shop in Japan, housed in the Omotesando Hills complex at the classier end of Tokyo’s chic Harajuku shopping district. The intention is clear: to present Ben & Jerry’s as a luxury brand.

This is Ben & Jerry’s second foray into Japan: Its 1997 distribution deal with 7-Eleven lasted mere months. But Unilever Japan Customer Marketing, whose global HQ acquired Ben & Jerry’s in 2000, is confident that things will be different this time.

“Ben & Jerry’s is an ice cream, but it’s also a very strong brand,” comments Shintaro Nakagawa, brand manager for Ben & Jerry’s at Unilever. “I think it is important to introduce Ben & Jerry’s to the Japanese public via these Scoop Shops, places where customers can come to try the ice cream and fully enter the world that surrounds the brand.

“We came to this conclusion after analyzing the success or failure of the brand in countries around the world, which I think the previous operators did not do — and that is what forced them to withdraw.”

Founded in 1978 in Burlington, Vermont, and preaching “peace, love and ice cream,” Ben & Jerry’s is renowned for its corporate values (such as the use of Fairtrade-certified ingredients), its laid-back cartoonish package designs, its playful marketing — and of course its ice cream, some of the tastiest in the world. Ben & Jerry’s is the populist choice because it indulges those childlike cravings we all have for massive chunks of chocolate and cookie dough, or rich seams of sticky caramel and fudge.

As such, it might seem curious that Unilever would position it here as a luxury brand — while Nakagawa blithely states that it has no competition in Japan, Häagen-Dazs and domestic brand Lady Borden already occupy that luxury space. Then again, the niche for a down-to-earth, fun ice-cream store is already filled too, by Baskin-Robbins and Cold Stone Creamery; since Ben & Jerry’s makes higher-quality ice cream than those brands, and since many Japanese consumers seem to have a weaker spot for luxury brands than they do for sweeties, the approach begins to make sense.

The Omotesando store will serve 12 of Ben & Jerry’s most successful flavors, including Chunky Monkey (which Nakagawa thinks will become most popular here), Cherry Garcia (his personal favorite) and Chocolate Fudge Brownie (mine), alongside shakes, sundaes and ice-cream cakes.

Time will tell whether their relatively sweet taste will appeal to the Japanese palate; but in addition to these imports, Nakagawa says that the Omotesando Scoop Shop, and the other 30-50 stores Unilever intends to open over the next five years, will introduce domestically produced flavors exclusive to Japan.

What these will be is anyone’s guess. All we know for sure is this: You’re gonna need a bigger belt …

Ben & Jerry’s Scoop Shop Omotesando opens April 14 at Omotesando Hills 1F, 4-12-10 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo. Open daily 11 a.m.-9 p.m. (Sun. till 8 p.m.). Nearest stations: Omotesando, Meiji-Jingumae, Harajuku. www.benjerry.jp.