We all knew what to expect. We knew what the headlines would be when Innocent drinks sold a stake of its business to Coca-Cola.
Monday’s confirmation of a deal we all knew was coming (and which some of us don’t think has yet run its full course – investment deals like this typically include clauses of full ownership within a certain period such as five years), prompted the same questions across all of Tuesday’s media. “Has Innocent lost its innocence?” “Is Innocent selling out?” These are the same questions all of us journalists who write about brands, marketing and consumer goods have asked dozens of times before. The same round of questions got asked of Ben & Jerry’s and Green & Black’s when those two niche brands sold to giant corporate rivals. Indeed, I’ve written the same article as the one that appeared in most national newspapers this week when Innocent teamed up with McDonald’s to distribute its smoothies through the fast-food chain and again when we found the company shovelling six teaspoons of sugar into every 420ml bottle of its This Water brand. Pretty soon you get bored of writing the same piece repeatedly.
Especially when, as a writer, you’re harbouring a nagging feeling that it is perhaps, the wrong question. Jo Roberts asks what we think is the right question in this week’s cover story (p16). This deal, along with all the others, isn’t about selling out. It’s about selling in. It’s about Innocent drinks feeding its best learning on marketing, sustainability and ethics into a much bigger vehicle and seeing its messages (and, in turn, its branding) hit a global audience.
The question isn’t “have they sold out?”, the question is “how much can Innocent change Coca-Cola?” Think I’m being naﶥ? Read the views of Unilever’s former UK chairman Gavin Neath on what Ben & Jerry’s did to the multinational’s brand marketing strategy for its other brands such as Lipton and PG Tips. Other case studies featured examine similar deals that have been well-raked over by journalists but pretty much always from the same perspective.
As for Innocent – well, again, what did we expect? The branding on the drinks, the tone of voice behind the events and the fact that the company still gives 10% of its profits to charity has perhaps disguised the fact that the three founders are astute business players. Two of them came from rival management consultancies and one from an ad agency. As a team they’ve never shied away from making the decisions that would grow the business. This deal and any further transfer of stock into Coke’s portfolio will certainly do that.
The cash will be used to attack the European market where there is more expansion potential than in the UK. The investment says nothing about ethics, and everything about a straightforward business need that we all knew Innocent would encounter eventually.
If Innocent loses its brand shine, it won’t be because it “sold out”. It will be because it didn’t diversify out of smoothies quickly enough. A colleague, discussing the Coke investment, remarked that smoothies remind her of “everything associated with pre-recession Great Britain”. She might be right. What once felt like a premium and healthy treat, now feels like an over-priced, sugary indulgence. The company had talked about possible brand extensions for many years before it introduced “veg pots” last year. Innocent aims to sell 10 million of the healthy but pricey ready meals by the end of the year. Innocent should use the Coke cash and any similar future investment to reposition as an innovator, a brand owner with ethics and a portfolio to die for.