Mark Ritson: Crisis shows Innocent’s values crushed by Coke

Former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was once asked what was the hardest thing about running the country. “Events dear boy, events,” was his famous (and perhaps apocryphal) response.

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The point Macmillan was trying to make was that no matter how long you spend on strategy – the quotidian challenges of everyday life inevitably throw a constant stream of random spanners into the mix.

The same can be said for brand management. We can effectively separate the challenge of managing brands into two sections. The first is the long term strategic stuff in which we do our research, find our target segment, craft our brand positioning and then plan an annual set of tactics accordingly. Then there is the “shit that always happens after you finish your plan but before the year starts” as Professor Kotler describes it in his seminal marketing textbook, Marketing Management.

Of course Kotler does not say that in his textbook. That’s the point about textbooks – they lay out beautifully the long term, predictable challenges of brand building but not the more immediate challenges caused by the “events” of the day.

Take the case of Innocent last weekend. It’s probably been at the top of most marketers’ lists as one of the best run brands in the past decade. Their new £3m TV ad campaign was another classic example of apparently good brand planning. One of the two ads features a young Indian man called Bedrul who spends seven days carefully (and charmingly) turning the hand-picked Mangoes each day to ensure they have the perfect taste. Cue images of perfect, fresh mangoes, cut to a pack shot and the strapline “taste good does good”.

Then came the events.

Last Thursday, barely 48 hours before Innocent’s ad was scheduled to run for the first time, the EU shocked Indian Mango producers with a blanket ban on all their fruit being imported into Europe. Apparently EU inspectors had found much of the mango crop infested with flies which it deemed a risk to Europe’s own fruit and veg production.

Over at Fruit Towers, Innocent’s London HQ, there was a bit of an issue to resolve. A major campaign promoting mangoes was due to air at the exact same time as the news that fresh Mangoes were being banned from import into the UK. The long term planning and short term events involved in brand management had just banged into each other. What should Innocent do?

On Friday a spokesperson for Innocent acknowledged the issue and then explained the campaign would run anyway. “We will still be running with our new mango ad as part of the campaign launching tomorrow. The new EU ban is only on whole mangoes. The mangoes that we use in our drinks are crushed in India when they’re perfectly ripe, and are imported in purée form and processed under strict safety guidelines, which means that our drinks are 100% safe to drink.”

What the team should have done, of course, is turn to its brand values and ask the eternally relevant question – what do they tell us to do? Given Innocent’s stated (and usually well executed) values of be natural, be entrepreneurial and be commercial the answer was pretty obvious.

You certainly don’t plough on regardless and cite your “pureed” “processed” production methods as the justification for running the ad anyway. Instead, you size up the situation and work fast (be entrepreneurial). You pull your mango ad and focus on the other thirty second spot which talks equally charmingly about Joachim and his entirely fly-free German apples. In your press conference you admit that the whole Mango thing caught you by surprise (be natural) but that you are hopeful for a resolution soon. You brief your commercial team to stop talking about puree and start communicating that you don’t have many fresh mangos at the moment but are doing your best to get supplies back in (be natural, be entrepreneurial, be commercial).

Let’s be honest. The fact that Innocent dropped the ball last week won’t destroy their brand or even impact much on sales. But it should worry the team at Fruit Towers that just as Coca-cola strengthens its ownership grip over the company the apparent ability of Innocent to be natural and entrepreneurial – something it used to do so effortlessly – now appears beyond them. The reaction to the Mango issue last week is exactly how Coca-cola would have handled the issue, and exactly not how Innocent once would have done it.

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