Boasting 75% of current market share, innocent holds a position at the top of the tree in the UK smoothie market. But it hasn’t always been such smooth sailing. Co-founder Richard Reed and head of creative Dan Germain take Helen Mayson through the fruits of their labours
It's only been a few sports-packed days since the start of the London 2012 Olympics when I arrive at Fruit Towers, headquarters of smoothie producers innocent, to speak to co-founder Richard Reed and head of creative Dan Germain. Reed is still feeling the effects of attending Friday's Danny Boyle-directed opening ceremony. “I cried twice,” he says. “The whole thing was completely profound on the deepest human level.”
I'm not surprised that Reed was appreciative of the three-hour opening ceremony, a celebration of being British that was positively packed with meaning, extolling the virtues of such diverse British institutions as the NHS, children’s fiction and industrial engineers. innocent itself was founded with a purpose – the blurb on the website says the company exists “to make it easy for people to do themselves some good (whilst making it taste nice at the same time)”. It's a motto innocent has stuck to throughout 13 years of business. “For me, innocent was just an expression of a desire to create something, to try and prick a little hole in the bubble of pomposity that business can sometimes find itself in,” says Reed. “To do something that had meaning.”
The story of how innocent was founded has become the stuff of enterprise legend. Reed, along with his university mates Balon and Wright, had been talking about setting up their own business for a long time.
“I was working in an ad agency and I actually sort of enjoyed it,” says Reed. “I liked the people I worked with, but one day I was sat in a meeting with my boss having exactly the same conversation with the same client and I just thought, in 10 years' time I’ll be doing the same thing as I'm doing now. I didn't like that. I wanted a sense of being able to increase the adventure, rather than repeating myself.”
The three friends took the leap into business when they hit on the idea of making smoothies – something that tasted great and was good for you. “After seven years of talking about setting up on our own we decided to give it a pop,” says Reed. “It wasn't our first idea, but it was the first good idea that we had.”
We make fruit juice and we're a business, but what's at the heart of that is that we're ambitious and altruistic in equal measure
It took a while to get the right name for the business, variously adopting the monikers Fast Tractor, Hungry Aphid, Nude and Naked. The trio went through several options before eventually settling on the name innocent, after first dismissing it as “too aromatherapy”.
The name, and the quirky, conversational tone of voice they employ on their packaging and advertising, has arguably had a huge impact on their success. I'm not sure people would have been as quick to embrace Hungry Aphid in their weekly shop.
Germain explains how they finally decided that innocent was the right way to go. “In the end, it reflected being natural, being honest, all the things that we thought were going to be important in our business and the products we were going to make,” he says.
So how does innocent’s success tally with the founders' ethical principles? There’s no denying that to make the business such a success, Reed, Wright and Balon must be highly motivated individuals. “As an impartial observer, I can say that I knew the three of them were always going to do something,” says Germain. “There was always drive – they just didn’t really know which direction it should be directed in.”
Reed is adamant that ambition and ethics needn't be mutually exclusive. “We make fruit juice and we're a business, but what's at the heart of our business is that we're altruistic and ambitious in equal amounts. We're trying to get more natural, healthy, ethical food and drinks to as many people and places as possible: that's why we're here. I think that's the commonality amongst the people that work here.”
innocent donates 10% of its profits each year to the charity The Innocent Foundation, which goes to the people in the countries from which the business sources its fruit. “It goes all over the world,” says Germain. “We try to get the money back to people who are working and living in those places who don’t have the materials they need or maybe the education they need to sustain themselves. That's our mission.”
Everyone appears to love innocent. The company has more than a quarter of a million fans on Facebook – and even our Olympic athletes got in on the act. After winning gold in the cycling time trials, Bradley Wiggins responded to innocent’s tweeted congratulations with, “Thanks guys, the Wiggins household lives off your drinks.”
But feelings towards the smoothie giant were less favourable when the press reported that Coca-Cola had bought shares in the business in 2008. So what prompted a company founded on ethics and health to allow a partial buyout by a multi-national soft drinks company?
“We'd simply got the business plan completely wrong in 2008,” says Reed. “We hadn't seen the recession coming, we hadn't moved quickly enough, we'd lost loads of money, we were in debt to the bank. But what we did have was a brand that had a huge amount of emotional resonance with its consumers and a rapidly growing international business. So we'd got ourselves into a short-term crisis but the long-term position was still very positive.”
They needed money, and after seeing 18 potential investors and receiving offers from eight of them, they were unanimous that Coca-Cola was the only one they wanted to do business with. “From the get-go they were the only ones that were just completely deferential to the brand,” says Reed. “They were the guys that we clicked with, they were smart, they were honest.”
There were understandably some initial concerns. “You never know what's going to happen,” says Germain. “You go in with the best intentions, but they're huge, massive, they have their own way of doing stuff. None of us could ever be quite sure how it would turn out.”
But innocent took the leap. Coca-Cola signed up to initially purchase 18% of the business for £30 million, allowing innocent to pay off its debts and invest in developing new products. Coca-Cola was so happy with the results they increased their share to 58% the following year. Unusually, as part of the new deal Reed and his co-founders retained the majority of voting rights, which means control of the overall direction of the brand and big decisions still fall to them. The innocent board have just four contractual two-hour meetings a year with representatives from Coca-Cola.
The business has doubled in size since their investment and Reed has no regrets about the deal. “We love them,” he says. “I thought there'd be upsides and downsides, because normally there is with anything in life, but it's just been all upsides.”
Germain agrees. “The last thing that they want to do is turn it into Coca-Cola mark two; they just want us to be more us, more of the time. As a result we've become better at being innocent.”
Like any successful business, innocent's jokey branding and tone of voice has ‘inspired’ other organisations to ape its style. As the driving force behind the brand identity, Germain is admirably laid back about his imitators. “It’s always been a bit of validation, actually. I think it just makes you better at what you do. I remember being at school and liking The Smiths, and then other bands came along that sounded a bit like The Smiths. I always stayed liking The Smiths rather than the other copycat bands. If you stay original and stay interesting, then hopefully people will stay with you.”
Where it may grate with other companies, innocent's branding works because it's right for it and personal to the people who created it. “When the business was smaller there was a small group of us just sitting in a room trying things out, and it was just the sound of some friends mucking about, writing bad jokes on the back of labels,” says Germain.
Up on the roof, Reed is pacing on his phone while the photographer waits patiently to take final pictures. He's off to shoot a commercial in Majorca tomorrow and he's pressed for time, but we manage to pin him down for a few snaps among the innocent veg boxes.
“I've thought about why I had such a profound reaction to the Olympics opening ceremony,” he says, as we finish shooting and wrap up for the day. “For me personally, it was that it was absolutely stuffed full of meaning; it wasn't just showing off. I'm really not trying to compare ourselves to the opening ceremony, but there's meaning to our business. We care about trying to get natural healthy food to people; food that's actually good for the person that drinks it and good for the communities that help make it.”
So, a man that means business running a business with meaning. It doesn't get more perfect than that.
The full version of this article appears in the September/October edition of Edge