When I first saw advertised that Dan Germain, Creative Director at Innocent was giving a talk at the Design Museums 'Designer's Breakfast' I was keen to go. Whether you are part of the 'Love Innocent' camp, or more of the 'vehemently hate' mindset, there's no denying it is a brand that has caught the eye, and I was curious to see what the man behind the creative output is really like.
Dan gave a précis of the start-up of the brand, back to 1999 when the 3 founders, went to a music festival selling their smoothies at a stall. They asked festival-goers to put their empty bottles into recycling bins labeled 'yes' or 'no', under the header "Should we give up our day jobs?" At the end of the festival the 'yes' bin was overflowing and there were only 3 bottles in the 'no', so they each resigned the following day.
What's in a Name? Everything. At this time the brand was known as 'Fast Tractor', but after a brainstorming session in Huddersfield library, huddled around a thesaurus, an array of names including 'Nostrum', 'Newborn' and 'Innocent' were put out to research, and thus the brand we all know was truly born. Between then and now the company has grown to about 220 people, and with a turnover of £180-200 million this year.
So what was Dan's part in this growth? How and why has Innocent succeeded where others have failed? He gave us three reasons...
1. Use Your Own Voice.
If you watch a Woody Allen movie, even if you don't know it's a Woody Allen movie when you first tune in, you know pretty quickly. He has a distinct style - him doing his own thing, not like anybody else. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but he does what is true to him. Innocent take the same approach- they have a voice of their own.
All along they have just been trying to have a chat to their consumers. Back in 1999 there was no Facebook, Twitter or Instagram - the packaging was their equivalent platform, and over the years they have continued to use that space and retained their voice. The chatty, jovial tone and whimsical lines like 'Stop looking at my bottom' stamped into the plastic bottle base.
Innocent are always writing stuff, and people are always writing back. At Fruit Towers (Innocent's headquarters on Ladbroke Grove, West London) they have a noticeboard with all sorts of things pinned to it that people have sent in. One woman even sends a tapestry of a cow every year - that's quite an investment of her time. I'm not sure how many other brands customers would do that for? The team reply to as much of the mail as they can, and Dan reminisces about one of his responsibilities during the early days of Innocent being to respond to people who emailed 'firstname.lastname@example.org'. It was like 'the best job ever' he said, 'like emailing your friends all day from work'.
For all the people who love to chat with Innocent, there are also those who are not drawn in. The Sabotage Times offers an interesting perspective on talking brands. But Innocent do not waver, they do not try to be something to everyone. They understand that if they did then they would dilute their message and the brand would suffer.
2. Be interesting.
Dan brings up a picture of a big yellow picnic hamper. It turns out on closer inspection that the picture is in fact the Longaberger headquarters building in the US. They make picnic hampers and decided it would be far more interesting to build a big yellow hamper to work in than a regular run of the mill office building. More importantly, how much more interesting is it to be employed by someone who makes that kind of decision? This is a good analogy for Innocent, where their ethos runs through the whole of their business. They don't work in a big smoothie bottle, but the employees do have a 'shared cultural understanding' at Fruit Towers.
3. Never listen to 'No'.
This has been a winning mindset of the Innocent team. They have tenaciously pursued avenues that seemed closed and found ways around obstacles. When one of the marketing team suggested putting little wooly hats on the bottles, they stuck to their 'Yes' principles. Against a barrage of 'Nos' that anyone working in the food packaging industry can appreciate, the project went ahead, and has become their biggest in-store promotion, growing in popularity and recognition year-on-year. Great things start from people who don't give up.
The talk opened up to questions at the end, which ranged from asking about the use of external creative support, through to Innocent's involvement as Olympic sponsor this year. But for me, the most interesting question asked how Dan feels about other brands that have appropriated the Innocent language. Flattered and annoyed, was his honest answer. If it is truly their voice, then that's ok with Dan... but if the story a brand is telling is a veneer, then that's pretty rubbish really. But, ever-positive, Dan turns this into a plus for Innocent, explaining how the creative team have really raised their game in response over the last few years, and 'just try to do it better'.