We all know Innocent Smoothies - the weapon of choice for the ethically conscious fruit consumer. With its conscientiously naive design, its proclaimed commitment to product quality, recyclable packaging, ethical treatment of staff and suppliers, and donation of a percentage of its profits to charity, the brand caught something of the zeitgeist and became one of the marketing successes of recent years. It had a great narrative: three friends from university, briefly sidetracked into management consultancy and advertising, who found their real mission in life when they took their experimental product to a music festival and sold smoothies to their fellow enthusiasts. They asked whether they should give up their jobs and make smoothies for a living, and two bins were provided for the bottles with the answers - yes or no. Yes won, they gave up their jobs, and they began the company.
The company that resulted grew immensely and seemed unstoppable. In some ways it was similar to a brand such as Ben and Jerry's ice-cream - consciously using the language and philosophies of counter-culture - even of anti-capitalism - to pursue the capitalist dream. Everything about the company seemed designed to fit: the language used in communications was simple and candid; advertising tended towards the wacky, with novelty vans and premiums; the corporate headquarters - Fruit Towers - was a place of fake grass carpets and table football. Roll over the staff name on their website and you get a baby photo. Many is the branding pundit who has pointed to Innocent Smoothies as being a perfect example of the articulation of clear brand values to the customer followed by delivery on those values, and who has pointed then to the consequent warmth of emotional engagement between the customer and the brand which is at the core of brand loyalty.
I did exactly that myself: only a couple of months ago I enthused about these virtues in a podcast interview with the Yorkshire Post (here - go to the February 24th edition, from 8 minutes 45 seconds) and in its print equivalent (here).
Then, about a week ago, the news began to seep out that Innocent Smoothies were taking a £30 million investment from Coke. It was made absolutely clear (for instance here) that the terms of the deal were rigorously negotiated by Innocent. They had fought to ensure that whilst they could take advantage of Coke's distribution and financial clout, and address the serious opposition being forced upon them from other drinks majors, the nature of their engagement with Coke was based on a hands off relationship, without strings such as the short term sell-off that would be required from other partners. They also stressed that this deal was done because Coke bought not only into the shares but also into the values Innocent had articulated and expressed.
The backlash was immediate. Innocent may be Innocent, but they are not necessarily as naïve as some of their packaging may suggest, and they must have expected it. After all, there is something of a history of brands which have ridden high in ethical terms which then have suffered a big backlash when they have taken investment from, or sold out to, multi-national businesses. Ben and Jerry's ice-cream was sold in 2000 to Unilever; Pret-a-Manger sold a stake to McDonalds in 2001 before being bought by the private equity group Bridgepoint recently; Green & Blacks, the organic chocolate manufacturer, was sold to Cadburys in 2005, and Anita Roddick sold The Body Shop business to L'Oreal in 2006. In every case, it has been stressed to a greater or lesser extent that this was not simply a financial deal; the big multi-national had recognised the values of the smaller company and "bought into" those values as well as the company. Following the same line of metaphor, this did not mean therefore that the smaller company had "sold out" in moral or ethical terms.
However, these claims have always been greeted with scepticism by many of the people whose passionate engagement with the brand made them its principal advocates in the marketplace. As in many causes, the depth of one's initial engagement is measured by the velocity of the rebound. Any visit to Innocent's own website or to a number of message boards that grew around the press reporting of the story leaves one in no doubt that, at least in the short term, far fewer smoothies will be handed across the newsagent's desk with the Guardian.
On top of the shock and disappointment, there is also a darker undertone in some comments. They suggest that the ethical stance was simply a smart piece of marketing from the outset. Two former management consultants and a former marketing executive knew exactly how to position a business to appeal to the angst of the middle classes, and were very effective in doing so; that thesis then goes on to suggest that what is interpreted as cynicism in the latest move simply releases the latent cynicism of the proposition from the very start.
The response strikes me as being both harsh and extreme. There is something reminiscent of George Orwell in the mantra, "small business, good; big business, bad," - anyone who believes that has never bought anything from a little stall outside a football ground. Many of the large businesses in the world have major ethical issues they need to engage with, and it could be seen as a cynical ploy on their part to invest in small businesses with high ethical reputations, as if they were buying indulgences; just as it can be seen as a "Faustian Pact" for the small business to accept the money. But the question arises - for those who support ethical trading and champion those brands that place it at the forefront of their message - what do they want? Do they want those values to enter into the mainstream of multi-national business, or do they want them to remain the preserve of small companies that can only compete in local markets? Does virtue have to equate with comparative failure?
As to the accusations of bad faith, I am reminded of the reply of the Earl of Rochester's alter ego, Dr Alexander Bendo, to those who accused him of being a charlatan. He replied that whilst he was the real thing, he necessarily looked like a charlatan, because the charlatans modelled themselves on him. This seems to me to point up an important issue: it is the nature of charlatanry that it resembles virtue, and vice-versa. It will be for both Innocent and Coca-Cola to prove their good faith by substantial deeds going forward, and reflex cynicism is no way to encourage them to do that.
Which I guess is a roundabout way of saying - let's wait and see. Innocent will have a difficult period to navigate, and it is interesting that "A Book About Innocent", which appears to be effectively the official history of the company, was published this week. Perhaps the timing is no accident, and certainly, since the news broke Innocent has been rightly careful in the way it has handled its public relations. The founders are finding out now what all businesses which have made so strong an ethical promise find out if they accept partners with less unblemished records: the strength of the backlash that is unleashed. It is the price paid for appealing to people on a moral level: their disappointment when they feel that morality is compromised is akin to lost faith, and can be a heavy burden. It is hard to say, but in that atmosphere of recrimination it is time for Innocent to make sure it looks after itself by enforcing its rights and not submitting to defamation. That balancing process is going to need fine judgement.
I would expect, however, that, even if there is less belief in the halo above the logo going forward, the business will ultimately be judged on the quality of its products, and the extent to which it can continue to deliver value to its customers and make good on its commitments. For all the front and centre given to morality by the name, perhaps its real future is as a brand rather than a crusade, with the ultimate emphasis being on taste and health rather than ethics. If it can deliver in those terms, this week's new book could be the first chapter of a long history, rather than just an elegy for lost hopes.
As Innocent moves into Experience, it will be interesting to watch its progress.
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