Meet the Israeli who wants to rename Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey ‘Judea and Samaria’
The talk of the Israeli food industry is how small-time factory owner Avi Zinger defeated global behemoth Unilever. It sure wasn’t easy. Zinger, Unilever’s Ben & Jerry’s franchisee until a few days ago, is now the owner of Ben & Jerry’s Israel. He has waged a stormy media campaign since July 2021, when Ben & Jerry’s announced that after 33 years of working together, it would not extend his contract because he sold its products in Israeli West Bank settlements.
This fight ended Wednesday with the most financially rewarding result possible for Zinger. Unilever had wanted to jettison Ben & Jerry’s Israel, which had turned a local dispute into a major crisis with widespread consequences for the conglomerate. It sold Zinger exclusive rights over the sale of the ice cream company’s products in Israel and the Palestinian Authority. No limited franchise. No royalties from sales of the brand. And, most importantly, no boss to interfere with his work.
Following the deal, Ben & Jerry’s sued its parent company, Unilever, on Tuesday to block the sale.
The agreements between Unilever and Zinger’s AQP holding company remain confidential, but sources familiar with the talks say the deal was worth several million shekels. Not bad, if you consider that Zinger paid Unilever 3 million shekels ($850,000) annually, representing 3 percent of Ben & Jerry’s Israel’s sales.
“Now I can do what I want,” Zinger told Haaretz. He split his weekend between interviews with the local and international press, and spending time with his family on the beach and at home in north Tel Aviv.
“Ben & Jerry’s is mine forever, plus I can make whatever flavor I want, collaborate with whichever Israeli company I want. The deal also states I can receive from them the knowhow, formulas and option to purchase raw materials from their suppliers – if I want.”
The only condition, he says, is that he has to remove the likenesses of founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield from the packaging. “I wanted to do that anyway after their behavior deeply offended me after being my friends for decades,” he says. “Also, I want the logo to be in Hebrew or Arabic, not English. The cow, the background, everything else will remain.”
For argument’s sake, could you rename Chunky Monkey “Ami and Tammi” (the Israeli Hansel and Gretel)?
“Yes, but perhaps ‘Judea and Samaria’ is preferable,” he retorts.
The controversy stemmed from the deal by which Unilever bought Ben & Jerry’s over 20 years ago. That deal gave the ice cream company’s board exceptional independence in what it described as preserving “and expanding Ben & Jerry’s social mission” and “brand integrity.” Thus, the board in Vermont has to approve every franchise agreement.
When Ben & Jerry’s announced last July that it wouldn’t extend Zinger’s franchise because it sold company products in the occupied territories, they thought they had the upper hand. However, they didn’t know Zinger was waiting with a prepared and well-timed response.
Several months earlier, he had enlisted the services of communications consultant Itay Ben Horin of Ben Horin & Alexandrovitz strategic communications firm. They decided together on a plan of action and key messaging. First and foremost, they had to separate the images of Ben & Jerry’s abroad and Zinger in Israel, as well as branding the fight as one of Israel against the BDS movement.
After achieving their initial goals, Zinger kept leveraging the international community against Unilever. He sued Unilever in the U.S. District Court of New Jersey, claiming it had violated American laws blocking anti-Israel boycotts. Zinger withdrew the lawsuit as part of the settlement. Zinger has hired the services of the crisis management firm Gitam BBDO IM. The firm helped him behind the scenes and lobbied public figures in Israel and abroad until the settlement.
How did you get cabinet ministers, lawmakers and prominent American Jews to join your fight? Was it your efforts or the issue itself that generated interest?
“It was like a perfect storm. Everything came together. For example, some 90 Knesseet lawmakers from almost all the parties signed a protest letter to the Unilever president. Where in Israeli history did Likud, Labor, Kahol Lavan and the Haredi parties, even [opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu] all join for a common goal?”
How did you reach 90 Knesset members?
“At first, nearly 20 Knesset members asked how they could help. I told them to lobby Unilever. I knew we wouldn’t influence Ben & Jerry’s because they didn’t care about us, but Unilever was under more pressure. So, we lobbied everybody. Throughout this struggle, I was in touch with committee members, lawmakers.”
He says the stars aligned with the Americans, too. “I lived in New York for many years. I worked, among other places, at the Israeli consulate,” he says. “I know how to work with international companies and know American culture. So it was easy for me to connect with them and vice-versa.”
Zinger declined to explain what his job was at the consulate.
“I fought a tough war. It didn’t just happen,” he adds. “I hired the best lawyers. Many Jewish organizations lobbied governors and state representatives, and they utilized the anti-boycott laws against Unilever. Many Unilever shareholders sued on the grounds that its behavior was hurting the share price. Many people wanted to help.”
Forcing their hand
Ben Horin, who worked with Zinger in the early days of the row, says that Zinger approached him two months before the Ben & Jerry’s announcement. “Zinger told us he understood where the winds were blowing, and the company would soon inform him that it was not renewing his franchise after 33 years,” he recalled.
“Zinger told me he always knew Ben & Jerry’s had anti-Israeli forces, both on the board and among the owners, but he had convinced them not to take radical steps,” he says. The fighting between Israel and Hamas in Gaza last year, however, was the breaking point, “and they sent him messages that the end of the contract was near. We were prepared with a strategy and messaging by the time Ben & Jerry’s made the formal announcement.”
Ben Horin adds: “Our plan was to separate the brand abroad from Avi Zinger in Israel. It’s not as simple as it sounds. The way to do it was to put Zinger front and center, because he is an experienced industrialist who projects trustworthiness. Second, it was to put the workers at the front, and to demonstrate that these are people who want to work and are not part of a political battle.”
They waited until July, when Zinger called and said the announcement was about to be released. Zinger also brought other senior consultants onto the call. “They told him the whole thing was ridiculous and if he wouldn’t respond, the whole story would disappear,” Ben Horin recalls. “We told him that you need to treat this like the biggest BDS incident since the Arab boycott from decades ago. And that’s how we set off on our way.”
He says the first thing they did was to ask the Yesha Council of settlements and lawmakers to show public support for Zinger. “Then we rode the media wave,” he says. “Everyone in the media wanted to interview him exclusively, but we said that it’s a national incident, and he was interviewed everywhere. The message started to work within hours.”
Ben Horin won’t say that the settlement represents an Israeli victory over BDS. “It’s somewhere in the middle,” he says. “On the one hand, Ben & Jerry’s initial announcement was a big victory for BDS. On the other hand, our management of the crisis turned public opinion favorably toward him, and that was hard. After he got Israel on board, he switched to the legal fight in the United States and recruited the Jewish community. That is probably what forced their hand.”
‘I need to protect my brand’s reputation’
Zinger, 70, received the Ben & Jerry’s franchise about 35 years ago, and turned it into a success story with a market share of nearly one half of the family-size ice cream category. He says the controversy cut his sales by 20 percent.
However, supermarket chains report that all ice cream categories suffered in Israel in 2021, after soaring in 2020 because of COVID-19 and lockdowns. They say decline in sales of Ben & Jerry’s was proportional to the rest of the market. Its decline also reflected new competition, like Unilever Israel’s Strauss, which launched Magnum in pints, and the Shufersal grocery chain’s house brand.
Supermarket chain executives say that Zinger had wanted to sell the franchise in the years prior to the crisis. He denies the claims: “They have said for 35 years that I want to sell,” he says.
Still, he admits the settlement improved his situation. “While I have debts in the millions of shekels, which I incurred because of the legal proceedings in Israel and abroad, my situation is already better than it was a year or two ago,” he says. “Ben & Jerry’s in Israel is mine. A cloud is no longer over my head that a new CEO of the global company will decide not to renew my contract, after I invested $2 million in a new factory line. I didn’t sleep until two nights ago. Now I can look my workers in the eye and tell them we won, and see the relief in their eyes. I’ll get through the debts. The worst is over.”
You also bought marketing rights for the Palestinian Authority. How much do you plan to use them?
“We sell in the PA, but not in large quantities because I didn’t really deal with it. Now a new, exclusive sales horizon has opened before me, and I’ll be able to expand sales of the brand there. I’ll offer packaging with Arabic writing.”
And what about selling a franchise for selling Ben & Jerry’s in Israel or the PA?
“I can do what I want, but I won’t sell a franchise because I don’t want someone ruining the brand. I need to protect my brand’s reputation.”
Regarding brand reputation, senior food industry officials struggle to understand Unilever’s agreement to let Zinger acquire the products – and among other things not to be subject to the corporation’s quality control. They say they think that Unilever, which invested hundreds of millions of shekels in Israel over the past decade, saw the negative repercussions of the affair among the U.S. Jewish community and wanted to rid themselves of it at any cost.
“I don’t know such a model for Unilever in any other country,” says an executive of an international competitor operating in Israel. “From the first moment, Zinger waged the battle amazingly. He knew how to tell his story, to lobby politicians and the Foreign Ministry, and everyone rushed onto his bandwagon. In part, there was a reasonable fear that if they let the Ben & Jerry’s move pass quietly, other international companies would take similar steps against Israel.”
The executive adds: “He made the deal of his life and got in return, for what I gather to be not such a great amount of money, a beloved global ice cream brand. There is no doubt that he is the winner in this story.”