From the top · 23 May 2018

Lessons from Innocent: Work hard, be authentic, watch Kevin Costner movies

Innocent tells the story of how the brand grew from humble beginnings to a supermarket giant

Last week the Isle of Man held its third annual Islexpo, a business conference and networking event, positioning the island as a great place to start and grow new businesses.

The event certainly got off to a bang with a keynote speech from Dan Germain from Innocent.

He polled the audience and all but two people in the packed conference hall had had an Innocent drink in their lifetime – quite an accomplishment for any business.

They may be a gladiator of the fruit juice aisle now, but the brand started from very humble beginnings.

Kevin Costner

Germain brought up a poster of Kevin Costner in Water World – a film that not everyone had even heard of, and which Germain himself conceded he had only “half-watched”. The movie had a large budget, and made huge losses.

Next, he brought up a picture of another Costner movie – Field of Dreams, famous for the line “if you build it, he will come”. The premise of the movie, if you don’t know, is that a farmer builds a baseball field in the middle of a corn field so that ghosts can come and use it as a hang out.

Germain admitted the idea was sketchy, but that “for some reason, it’s brilliant”.

In the early days of Innocent, all the business advice the founders were receiving felt like Water World-style advice. It was all about money and scale, but they just wanted to build something they liked.

The founders went to university together, and waned to create something that made it easy for people to do themselves some good. Smoothies weren’t a big deal in the UK back in the 90s, and so began Innocent’s very own Field of Dreams.

Choosing a name

Have you ever heard of Fast Tractor? This was the first name the company started with.

“It was a hell of a ride – it was also the worst brand in the world,” said Germain.

The founders had met a man with a carrot farm, and he was the only man that would help them make their drinks. He also had a fast tractor.

“It’s quite a hard thing to look at each other and say, so you think this is shit? Because I do…but I don’t want to say it first…”

Eventually, they decided to start from scratch. Innocent was a much better fit for the brand – to have a relationship with a brand, you need to know its values, and “Innocent” communicates that far more effectively.

Making it work

The business took a load of drinks down to a small music festival in London with a sign asking the customers if they thought they should give up their day jobs. There were two bins – a yes bin, and a no bin.

The drinks were popular.

In the early days, making the brand work was about getting up early to deliver drinks, clean the van and call sandwich shops and delis.

The business considered branching out into all kinds of things, including green energy and hotels, but they realised the one thing they were really good at was making drinks.

“Keep the main thing the main thing,” said Germain.

Being innocent

In the beginning, Innocent actually gave away too much money – it needed to learn how to operate more like a business.

“We got smart about how we gave away money after about five years,” Germain said.

The Innocent Foundation now exits to give money to entrepreneurial charities, where they can try things out that haven’t been tested before.

An example Germain gave was a charity that helped starving children in Mali. The charity had created paper strips as a measuring device on the arm to test whether a child was suffering from malnutrition, and pouches of peanut butter to be sent out into the field to the children that lived too far away to get to their nearest health centre.

Another campaign launched by Innocent is the now-famous Big Knit. This is the campaign where once a year, all the little smoothie bottles stocking the shelves each come with their own little woolly hat, to raise money for Age UK.

Germain admitted he wasn’t sure about this at first, but now it’s the single biggest marketing campaign they do every year.

“It’s really stupid. It makes no sense, like many other things that have happened in the history of the business, but it works.”

Germain argued simply that humans are weird, they like the hats. It doesn’t hurt to be a bit clueless.

Be authentic

One thing that Innocent is certainly known for is its particular tone and voice. There are jokes on the bottles, and moulds with hidden messages to make unsuspecting customers smile. If you look at any of its social media posts, they all share a common voice – a fun-loving, cheeky, direct way of interacting with consumers.

You can also speak to Innocent at any time – the number is on the bottles of their drinks. It goes through to the banana phone.

If someone can’t get to the banana phone within three rings, every phone in the building rings, and everyone has a responsibility to answer it.

“The moment we think we’re too good to pick up that phone is the moment we should end,” said Germain.

Innocent’s growth story is remarkable – from uni friends banding together to make fruit drinks, to a leading brand with the power to be a real force for good.

Be authentic, be true to your brand, work hard – and who knows how it will pay off?

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Letitia Booty is a special projects journalist for Business Advice. She has a BA in English Literature from the University of East Anglia, and since graduating she has written for a variety of trade titles. Most recently, she was a reporter at SME magazine.

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