Imitation may be the most delicious form of flattery--especially for startups taking on consumer-products giant Unilever.

Three months after the owner of Hellmann’s Mayonnaise dropped its lawsuit against Hampton Creek over its eggless Just Mayo, another small food company is unveiling artisanal versions of Unilever products. This time, organic ice cream startup Three Twins is selling pints that are open riffs on two popular Ben & Jerry’s flavors.

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“You could say it’s complimentary, you could say it’s a shot across the bow. It’s really up to the beholder,” Three Twins founder Neal Gottlieb said Thursday.

His company’s newest ice creams are the rather innocuously named Banana Nut Confetti and Cherry Chocolate Chunk. But in case you miss any similarities to Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey and Cherry Garcia, Three Twins’ cartons helpfully spell them out: “We’re not monkeying around with this combination of banana, walnuts and chocolate,” reads the pint for Three Twins’ banana nut ice cream.

The words on the cherry flavor nod to Cherry Garcia’s namesake, late Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia: “You’ll be grateful that this sumptuous combination is available in organic.” And the startup’s press release makes it clear that Three Twins isn’t just playing with language: “Rather than a tribute to those that originated this flavor, we think that it’s a great improvement,” Three Twins says of its Cherry Chocolate Chunk.

This sort of close imitation is a potentially risky way for Three Twins to increase its sales, especially since Ben & Jerry’s owner, Unilever, has recently gone to litigious lengths to defend its product branding. The company last year sued Hampton Creek over its use of the word mayo, claiming that Just Mayo had no eggs and thus could not meet the definition of mayonnaise.

On the one hand, that worked out well for Hampton Creek: Unilever dropped its lawsuit in December, and the startup pulled down a ton of publicity in the process. On the other hand, Gottlieb seems to be flirting with fire, even though he vetted the strategy through his lawyer (who nixed an earlier name for Three Twins’ banana nut flavor: Cheeky Monkey).

“I’m not stupid. We’re not going to do something to draw out a lawsuit from Unilever,” Gottlieb told me. Getting sued by a giant competitor “worked out for Hampton Creek, but it probably wouldn’t work out for most companies.”

Three Twins' new flavors were in the works before Unilever sued Hampton Creek, and Gottlieb says he’s hoping they attract a broader audience to the once “pretty boring” organic ice cream aisle: “A big part of what we’re doing is trying to make sure people don’t have to give anything up in order to embrace organics.”

But the brand Three Twins is tweaking has a significantly different consumer reputation than Hellmann’s and its mass-market sandwich condiment. While Ben and Jerry's is owned by the same multinational conglomerate, it has been a pioneer of politically conscious and sustainably produced food, and has remained involved in social and environmental activism even after its 2000 sale to Unilever.

Ben & Jerry's seemed to take the Three Twins tribute in stride Thursday. "If imitation is the most sincere form of flattery ... we'll consider these delicious. Just as long as they don't bump off that fabulous lemon cookie flavor, we're cool with it," said Sean Greenwood, director of PR and communications.

Gottlieb’s no stranger to courting controversy. A former Peace Corps volunteer, he became the subject of widespread press coverage in April after he hiked to the top of Uganda’s highest mountain and planted a rainbow flag there. The country’s government had recently criminalized homosexuality and made it punishable by penalties including life imprisonment.

Gottlieb, who lives on a 40-foot houseboat and showed up for a recent meeting wearing a bow tie and trousers printed with images of his company’s green ice cream cartons, started Three Twins in 2005.

The company, based in the San Francisco Bay Area city of Petaluma, had sales last year of $8.9 million. The ice cream production industry had total revenue of $8.4 billion in 2014, according to IbisWorld. Unilever, which also owns Breyers, Klondike, and other ice cream brands, is second only to Nestlé in that market, and has annual ice cream-related revenue of $1.5 billion, according to IbisWorld.

Flavors aside, Gottlieb’s activism might be appreciated by Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, who started their ice cream business in 1978. The founders are still willing to talk political and social change, and recently told the Huffington Post that they might consider making a cannabis-laced Ben & Jerry’s flavor in places where marijuana is legal.

Published on: Mar 5, 2015