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Bernie Sanders, Ben and Jerry’s, and the Power of Brand

Why is it that the phrase “Made in Vermont,” which conjures up romantic notions of purity, wholesomeness, and verdant pastures, actually seems to mean something to many people while these same attributes fall flat when used by our friends a short hop, skip, and a jump away in neighboring New Hampshire?

Bernie-BenJerry

“Made in New Hampshire?” Apologies to all my New Hampshire friends, but that just doesn’t cut it.

The two states are divided by the Connecticut River, a thin ribbon of water cutting through the hills and valleys. The climates are identical, and both states share rural populations as well as urban areas. The landscape does actually differ to some degree, with New Hampshire claiming the lion’s share of more than 48 4,000-foot peaks and a granite backdrop to Vermont’s relatively paltry five 4,000-footers and a more gentle landscape.

Gross oversimplifications, perhaps, but landscapes aside, the two states and how the general public perceives them couldn’t be more different. Ironically, it is New Hampshire that is more often associated with a fierce independent streak. Nowhere is this more glaringly evident than in the state’s striking license plate: “Live Free or Die.”

Vermont is no lemming, however, when it comes to politics. This state has its own independent streak that dates back to the Green Mountain Boys, led by the inexhaustible Ethan Allen, and President Calvin Coolidge, or Silent Cal. In fact, Vermont was the first state in the Union to partially abolish slavery. Yet as liberal and quirky as Vermont and its politics are, Vermont is one of the most racially homogeneous states in the country. According the 2014 census, 94.3 percent of its 626,562 population (second least-populated state in the Union) identified as white.

So what gives? Would Bernie Sanders be Bernie if he weren’t from Vermont? Would Ben and Jerry’s have become a cultural food icon if the company had been from New Hampshire or New Jersey?

Almost since its inception, the Vermont brand has been synonymous with quality, wholesomeness, and independence. Consider the quirky, cult appeal of other modern Vermont-based brands (or bands): Green Mountain Coffee, Heady Topper, Phish, Grace Potter. There is an element of cool, a cache of being somewhat of an iconoclast. I think it’s fair to say that regardless of your political persuasion, Bernie's own label is burnished a bit because he's from Vermont... even if his accent isn't.

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield were able to capitalize on their label not necessarily because they had the best ice cream (full disclosure, I’m a pint-a-week guy), but because they were seen by many as the essence of Vermont—independent, unique, self-described hippies who peaced out and made ice cream amidst the rolling green hills and black and white cows of Vermont. Both Bernie and Ben and Jerry’s have been able to connect with the emotional response that the Vermont brand has come to symbolize.

Of course, Bernie’s politics are not about the fact that he is a Vermonter. Rather, because he is from Vermont, he is often given both the latitude and, in some circles, the support to say and do things differently. Some people feel the spark of political engagement while others roll their eyes and say, “What do you expect from the People’s Republic of Vermont?”

The power of the Vermont brand is so firmly etched in our collective consciousness that Vermont companies and politicians have the ability to set themselves apart for no apparent reason other than they are from Vermont.

Now that is a powerful brand.

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