The Innocent way: How to get bigger by staying small

BusinessZone
Dan Martin
Former editor
BusinessZone.co.uk
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Smootie brand Innocent achieved huge success with its annual free Fruitstock festival. So why did the company decide to rebrand the idea into a more low key, ticket-only event? John Simmons explores how Innocent shows that a business can grow by staying small.

They're one of the UK's most imitated companies, and with good reason – but you have to understand what it is you're trying to imitate. Many small businesses imitate just the outer appearance of Innocent Drinks without realising the depth of commercial savvy that really drives the business.

Innocent came from nowhere at all ten years ago to become one of the UK's most admired and successful brands. Perhaps best known for a quirky, humorous style that flows through everything from their vans to labels to website to employment contracts, Innocent have been the country's fastest growing food and drink company.

One sign of their burgeoning success was the Fruitstock festival, but the changes they made to this are a useful lesson for all small businesses who look admiringly at Innocent. Behind the very laid-back exterior is a hard commercial intelligence. The Innocent founders have been intriguingly described as "hippies with calculators" and there's some truth in the phrase.

Fruitstock seemed like an idea that could only get bigger year by year. It began in 2003 as a little music festival organised by Innocent. Fruitstock was an extraordinary demonstration of its success as a brand - if we measure success by size. But it was not only big, it was a fun event that people loved.

The name Fruitstock doffed its cap to the iconic Woodstock Festival where some of the great musical names of the 60s had covered themselves in mud and glory. But Fruitstock was the name because Innocent is about "fruit and nothing but nothing but fruit".

Fruitstock also recalled Innocent's original founding at a West London music festival. Back in 1998 the three Innocent founders – fresh out of university but with high-flying jobs – had bought a load of fruit, crushed it into bottles of smoothies, and sold them from a stall to the festival-goers in Parsons Green. They had put out "Yes" and "No" bins in front of a sign asking: "Do you think we should give up our jobs?" As the "Yes" bin filled with empty bottles they went into work on the Monday and resigned. Innocent was born as a business with an entrepreneurial spirit.

It's a business that has come a long way in those 10 years. Fruitstock was, once a year in August, a visible demonstration of Innocent's growth. Having established its popularity through tasty drinks with idiosyncratic labels with funny stories, the filling of a Royal Park with Innocent fans was evidence that Innocent had really arrived as something of a phenomenon.

Regent's Park was the location for people to congregate, listen to music, enjoy the sunshine and drink an Innocent smoothie. It seemed a simple enough offer but such was the power of the Innocent brand, and the loyalty it inspired among its growing band of consumers, that numbers rose year by year. The surprising 39,000 in 2003 had swelled to an astonishing 120,000 in 2006.

As Fruitstock grew it changed a little. A farmers' market expanded around the music stage and other brands set up stalls. Innocent made sure that these brands fitted with its own principles of healthy eating and doing no damage to the planet. There were Fair Trade food stalls, handmade toys and even a reading area created by the publisher Penguin. Fruitstock was spreading, becoming more famous, maintaining its non-profitmaking ethos and, seemingly, doing nothing but good to the Innocent brand. But it was still essentially a music festival.

Which explains the problem. Innocent is, and wants always to be seen as, a fruit juice company. Fruitstock was making it famous for music, followed by fruit juice, and the brand message was being diluted – it was as if its smoothies were being adulterated by ingredients other than pure fruit.

So Innocent decided in 2007 to abandon Fruitstock and replace it with something smaller and truer to its brand. Most brands (and it's especially tempting for start-ups to think this way) equate growth in numbers with success so it was a brave decision to abandon Fruitstock and come up with something else to replace it.

The thought became: what would Innocent's ideal summer party be like? The answer came back, like a Village Fete. This would be smaller in scale, less about music, better for younger children and families, and more fun for Innocent people because of a range of daft activities that you would find in village fetes up and down the country. The difference was that you might not expect welly wanging, ferret racing and Morris dancing to be on offer at a village fete in the centre of London.

The decision was taken to hold the Village Fete in Regent's Park but to limit numbers to 60,000 – half the number of the last Fruitstock. The limit would be applied by making it a ticketed event with an entrance fee and giving the money raised to charity. Innocent people enjoyed themselves more: "It felt calmer, more family-oriented. There was more sitting around, enjoying life at a slower pace. There were lovely things to do. You could try duck herding."

All in all, it felt more Innocent, more responsible: "to leave things a little better than we find them, and to encourage others to join us too". So they turned their backs on what had looked like an unstoppable drive towards larger and larger crowds. They spread out blankets on the grass, got out the picnics and simply had a good time.

Does it make commercial sense? Innocent believe so and by now we should trust their commercial judgement. The reason why Innocent have run Fruitstock and the Village Fete is that they use these events to demonstrate the distinctiveness of their brand.

When Fruitstock seemed, despite its numerical success, to be sending Innocent slightly off-brand they adjusted it to the Village Fete. This year's bad weather made it a less sunny event but people still flocked in and happily became part of the brand's family. The Innocent brand will emerge stronger than ever, and its brand is the main weapon against growing competition from the likes of Pepsico which this year aggressively launched Tropicana smoothies into the UK market.

What then are the Innocent messages to other small businesses looking for growth? I set out "seven pillars of Innocent wisdom" to conclude my book and other businesses should think carefully about how these might apply to them.

  1. Keep it natural
     
  2. Stay focused on the brand
     
  3. Your business is an extended family
     
  4. Use your brain and your imagination
     
  5. Stick to your principles
     
  6. Think about the mess you leave behind you
     
  7. Enjoy yourself

But the other principle to learn is "don't just imitate, it won't work". Innocent is Innocent and your brand needs to work out what is distinctive about itself, then stick to that. But as Innocent have shown, you then need to keep making adjustments if you feel your brand is going slightly out of focus.

John Simmons is a director of The Writer and the author of 'Innocent: Building a brand from nothing but fruit' published in an updated edition by Marshall Cavendish in August 2008.

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