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Our fans want all kinds of ways to get Ben & Jerry's euphoric flavors and that includes vegan and non-dairy: Ben & Jerry's CEO

Matthew McCarthy, Ben & Jerry's CEO joins Yahoo Finance’s Alexandra Canal and the Yahoo Finance Live panel to discuss the COVID impact on business, the Jan 26th launch of Non-dairy Phish Food (one of their most popular flavors) as well as Ben & Jerry’s Release of ‘Climate Conscious’ Vegan Ice Cream Urging Political Action.

Video Transcript

ZACK GUZMAN: You might not expect it from an ice cream company, but Ben and Jerry's is in the early stages of a massive push into non-dairy desserts. The Vermont-based brand already made headlines with its Colin Kaepernick-inspired Change the World flavor, a non-dairy ice cream and a nod to Kaepernick, who is vegan.

Today, the company rolling out a vegan version of its most popular flavor, Fish Food. So why the big non-dairy push from a company that features literal cows on its packaging? Here to explain that is Ben and Jerry's CEO Matthew McCarthy alongside Alexandra Canal here with us.

And Matthew, I mean, obviously this is all about growth, right, offering more products out to people. So why the big push into these non-dairy alternatives now?

MATTHEW MCCARTHY: Yeah, thanks for having me. I appreciate it. This is a big day for us.

You know, as a company-- I like the way you say it. As a company that has a cow on the package, and we've been associated with our Vermont farmers for decades now, our fans want all kinds of different ways to get Ben and Jerry's euphoric flavors. And that includes dairy but also includes vegan or non-dairy flavors, which we started, really, developing a few years ago.

And 2016 is when we started to really release them. And the more we release, the more fans said, hey, for whatever reason, dietary restrictions, choices, awareness about the carbon footprint of the food choices our fans make, they just kept asking for more flavors. So our flavor gurus just got after developing more and more of our classic flavors. And Fish Food is one of our classics. And to launch that into a vegan, it takes a lot of work, actually, to do that and to be just as yummy as our dairy.

But it's about wowing our fans. We want to excite our fans and keep them really excited about the stuff that we do to keep our fans happy.

ALEXANDRA CANAL: And the plant-based health kick boom, that's something that doesn't seem to be going away any time soon. But when we do speak to analysts about Beyond Meat, about Impossible Foods, they do say that a way for them to continue to grow, innovate, hit that jackpot is improving the quality of the ingredients and the healthiness of their products.

Now, even your non-dairy options are still around 400 calories per serving. So is there an effort to try and make your ice cream healthier across the board not, just your lower calorie options, since this does seem to be something that consumers are craving at the moment?

MATTHEW MCCARTHY: That's a great question. And it's something we talk a lot about. The confluence of good for me and good for the planet is probably one of the biggest megatrends that we're seeing. I've been in the food business for a couple of decades now. And I think you're asking a very apropos question.

For Ben and Jerry's, we have always, and we will continue to stand for indulgent, super-premium ice cream and frozen desserts. We may do other things. But that's really the heart of what Jerry and Ben created almost 43 years ago.

And so no, our ice cream is not a health food. It's not designed to be a healthy thing. But our focus is on creating the same delicious, over-the-top, super-premium ice cream in a non-dairy dessert still has to be at the same standards. And that's exactly what our fans are demanding. They do not want to have something that doesn't live up to what their expectations of Ben and Jerry is. So for us and our definition, it's definitely got to be through the lens of super-premium flavors that just really wow our fans.

I will say, though, that the healthier for the planet is something that's really growing traction. More and more consumers are seeing that intersection. More people are seeing that intersection between our choices in the foods that we bring into our lives, into our family's life, into our homes have a real impact on the planet.

So I think that the predictions that you mentioned of other folks in the industries that you're talking to are absolutely right. I think that should be not confused with dietetic or health food. Both can be true. It depends on the products that you're talking to.

AKIKO FUJITA: Yeah, it seems like, increasingly, that's what's pushing this or at least growing this market. If we're just talking about vegan, for example, those who would have traditionally eaten ice cream now looking at the carbon footprint as well.

I know you said the focus for the company is still on sort of these indulgent ice creams as we traditionally look at them. But to what extent do you think are you looking at the makeup of your products, how you're likely to maybe force into shifting that because of what the market's dictating, especially on concerns about the impacts of climate?

MATTHEW MCCARTHY: I think the short answer is a big, big yes. So on our dairy products, we've got a program called Caring Dairy that we continue to evolve and to try to make our products the best way possible. That's not only from a formulation and from a culinary perspective and kind of a wow factor from an ice cream intelligence perspective, but also being mindful of all the ingredients that go into it.

We've already been in the plant-based business. Ingredients like chocolate, those are plants that come from cocoa, sugar. And so being mindful, I think, of all of the ingredients that go into your product, to your point, is extremely important.

Yes, there's a lot of talk about vegan or plant-based diets. But even the plants that you're using that go into your ingredients need to be looked at. And we take more of an approach on values-based sourcing. And we can always do a better job at Ben and Jerry's to be mindful of it, to take proactive steps to make the entire supply chain better.

And I don't think it's just a one-off thing, where you can say, oh, it's dairy or it's whatever else it is. I think that all manufacturers that are in the food business need to be mindful that food systems are one of the biggest ways that humans have an impact on the world, on climate.

And so I think all of us, whether you're in dairy products or non-dairy products, you need to be looking at your entire supply chain. And that's going to be increasingly important going forward, I think.

ALEXANDRA CANAL: And it's no secret how socially active Ben and Jerry's is. You guys released a statement after the Capitol riots. You've never shied away from that. However, how do you balance that corporate social responsibility while still maintaining your brand identity as a leader in the ice cream space?

MATTHEW MCCARTHY: Well, it's interesting. I don't see it so much as a balance, you know? Balance may be seen as kind of a zero sum thing, a scale where you're balancing two sides. I think what we've tried to do for coming up on 43 years is to be an aspiring social justice company, a company that tries to do the right thing and to advance progressive values, both on social justice and climate justice and often the intersection between the two, which goes back to kind of the heart of our conversation a moment ago.

So I don't see it as a tradeoff. And what we're finding is that our fans-- the more that our fans know about the work that we're trying to do, that we're trying to advance through our products and through our business, actually, the more they're interested in participating.

And so I do not see it as a tradeoff at all. In fact, I see it as integral to the identity of our brand, to use that language. And I think that in a world of very high transparency, increasing transparency, I think it's important for us as Ben and Jerry's and, really, for all companies to make explicit what they're trying to do, to make transparent what they're trying to do.

And some fans will love that. And you'll gain more fans because of that. And some people may not choose your brand. And that's perfectly fine.

AKIKO FUJITA: Yeah, interesting to hear you call customers fans and not necessarily customers. But you certainly have a lot of followers in this space. Matthew McCarthy, Ben and Jerry's CEO, along with Yahoo Finance's Allie Canal, thanks so much for joining us today.

MATTHEW MCCARTHY: Thank you very much.