Not so innocent? From saintly smoothies to partnering with McDonald’s

Branding expert John Simmons investigates ethical successes taking the corporate pound


Who wins, who loses, when two brands of contrasting principles do a deal? The question is particularly crucial for the smaller of the two.

You might be a fast-growing business, but could you grow even faster if you hitch a ride with a more powerful company? Or if your loyal customers take against you, could the association undermine the hard-won integrity of your brand? Do you achieve the extra sales volume but sacrifice your all-important reputation?

Happy meals, customer anger 

These questions have currency again after the announcement that McDonald’s will sell Innocent fruit smoothies in its Happy Meals. Even though it’s only a six-month pilot scheme in one region, a storm of concern – and in some cases anger – broke over the normally laid-back inhabitants of Innocent’s Fruit Towers.

After eight years of seemingly unstoppable and untroubled growth, generating acres of positive press coverage and harvesting awards galore, Innocent has encountered its first frosty publicity. The company has built its reputation on being the good guys in an ultra-competitive drinks category. By providing healthy drinks made of fruit and nothing but fruit, Innocent has quickly established itself against multinational corporations such as Coca-Cola and Pepsico. As well as simply supplying healthy drinks, Innocent has made its name by being funny, responsible and ethical.

Now, all of a sudden, its reputation has been put at risk by a deal with McDonald’s, seen by many as the polar opposite of Innocent. ‘Guilty’ is the cry shouted by many against McDonald’s: guilty of supplying food that adds to problems of obesity and guilty of farming practices that threaten the rainforest.

Bloggers on the Innocent website raged against the association with ‘McDollar’, a visceral reaction that could not be pacified by Innocent pointing out it had consulted Greenpeace and the Rainforest Alliance in advance – and that both were positive about it working with McDonald’s.

Talking about the brouhaha, Ian Hindle, McDonald’s vice-president for communications, has an urbane but resigned air about him: “We are tackling the broader issues around diet and obesity, and we’re developing healthier offers. We have already added fruit and organic milk to the mix of products in Happy Meals, while reducing the fat, sugar and salt content of the main items. The Innocent smoothie is just one more option for consumers, which is available as part of a trial.

“Our customers are the ultimate decision- makers. It will be up to them whether they choose Coke, Tropicana, water or an Innocent smoothie. But we want to offer them the healthier option.”

This is all very rational but the reaction from Innocent consumers was much more emotional. “It’s all about money and you won’t be getting any more of mine,” wrote one blogger on the Innocent site.

Emotion and brands

The reality is that people get emotional about brands. There’s no surprise in that – after all, brands try to imbue emotional qualities into the way they project themselves. All brands want to be liked, which means creating an emotional connection with audiences.

And Innocent took its brand to even greater heights. It created a brand that was loved not just liked; people believed in it and took it into their lives.

David Arkwright of the brand consultancy MEAT, who has experience in the drinks category, says: “Innocent’s one profound advantage is its ideology – it suffuses the whole brand in a purposeful way. After all, we’re only talking about crushed fruit here, and that is done by a third party. So the purity of the brand ideology – and keeping that unsullied – has given it its strength.

“This McDonald’s deal seems like a compromise that is almost sacrilegious. You can have a debate about whether it’s worth doing, so ‘good’ can overcome ‘bad’, but it’s a dangerous game. So in the end it just smacks of commercial greed.”

An interesting debate is the way that Innocent views the exchanges on its blog. Dan Germain, the creative head in charge of Innocent’s idiosyncratic tone of voice and in many ways the soul of Innocent, says: “Personally, I think the greatest thing is that we’ve been able to have a proper, open debate on our blog. I’m proud that that’s the way we do things at Innocent. No smoke, no mirrors.”

Innocent has gone to great lengths to head off the trouble that it foresaw. Two company meetings were held before the decision became public. Even so, the fierceness of the response has taken it by surprise. Jamie Mitchell, Innocent’s UK managing director, admits: “If anything we were naive in not recognising how big a deal McDonald’s is to a lot of people. Only by engaging do you realise how negative the perception is. But we still think we took the right decision.

“Innocent has grown up as a business in the last couple of years. We’re surprised when we see Nielsen rating us as the 10th biggest drinks brand. We’re growing commercially but our ethics are not changing, we’ll always stand by our principles.”

This is the crucial aspect for any growing business. Innocent has always been clear about what it stands for. Its customers, consumers and employees have all understood what it means to be Innocent. Now there is a little doubt. The brand will not unravel, but Innocent will need to make clearer than ever that it has principles and that it is sticking by them.

At the heart of the brand is the product itself. Pure fruit. No added sugar, no concentrates, no preservatives. It’s this – and the fact that Innocent is sticking resolutely to its product purity – that gives reassurance about the brand itself. As long as the product delivers the promise of “fruit and nothing but fruit” the Innocent brand can maintain its credibility.

Matter of trust

Innocent was founded by three exceptionally bright young friends. Their founding story is legendary (see GB February issue). Richard Reed, Jon Wright and Adam Balon are as hands-on as ever. People’s trust in the Innocent brand rests on their trust in the founders, even as they grow the business beyond 200 employees, £100m turnover and distribution in many European countries.

There are difficult decisions to be taken, but the founders know the requirements of good branding and they know the need for honesty. They are passionate about the value of their product in helping people – particularly children – to stay healthy. On those grounds the McDonald’s opportunity could not be rejected. Indeed, Reed has said that it would be “irresponsible” not to take the chance.

There is, though, a dichotomy as Innocent grows. It wants to grow big but to seem small, a trick that becomes more diffi cult with each year that passes. Innocent’s strategy will be to regroup around its core brand values and re-emphasise the purity of the product and the ideas that have made it.

Evolving a business

There are a couple of signifi cant signs of this happening. First, Innocent’s Juicy Water product has been renamed This Water and distanced from the core brand. There’s even talk that it might be sold off as a separate business and certainly there is a need to remove Innocent’s association with a product that contains “some sugar”. The smoothies, though, will remain Innocent through and through, made to seem even purer by the absence from the range of a slightly less pure product.

The other development is Innocent’s abandonment of Fruitstock. Here is a signal of Innocent’s bravery and ability to take the right but unexpected decision. Fruitstock was a music festival that had achieved great success, growing year by year until in 2006 more than 100,000 people crowded into Regent’s Park to listen to music and drink Innocent smoothies. It seemed inevitable that it would continue to grow.

But this year there will be no Fruitstock because Innocent felt it was making the company seem too corporate. Other bigger brands – names such as BP or Ben & Jerry’s, for example – had got into music festivals, encouraged by Innocent’s success.

In 2007, Fruitstock has gone to be replaced by a village fete – perhaps the biggest village fete in the country. But Innocent wants to grow big and stay small. Its strategists know what they are doing.

John Simmons (john.simmons@thewriter. co.uk) is author of Great Brand Stories: Innocent: Building a Brand from Nothing but Fruit, published by Cyan Books for £8.99.

Daily innocent lessons

1 Believe in your brand, let its values guide your actions

2 Be prepared to explain difficult decisions in advance to your own people ? and afterwards to your different audiences

3 Take decisions for the right strategic and ethical reasons ? not for short-term gain

4 Keep communicating, even when people are cynical and don?t believe you

5 Open yourself up to dialogue with your consumers, particularly when they think you have done something wrong

6 Recognise the new power of the blog as a way of engaging with consumers

7 Be brave: be prepared for flak but be honest with yourself ? it?s easier to be brave if you know you are right

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