On 20 November 2013, at the tenth in Piper’s popular series of networking lunches, guests from a wide range of food and drink brands discussed challenges facing their ever-changing sector.
The speaker was Adam Balon, co-founder of Innocent Drinks and a member of Piper’s Advisory Panel.
Balon gave an entertaining account of Innocent’s early days. After he and co-founders, Richard Reed and Jon Wright, had tried and failed to get funding from the usual channels, they were forced to adopt a radical approach: ‘We sent an email out to everyone we knew saying: “Do you know anyone rich?” Thankfully, someone did – which was how we were introduced to Maurice Pinto, our first backer.’
Balon recalled how the brand’s famous grassy motif evolved from an experiment using turf at trade shows. ‘We tried putting real grass on our cars too – and it actually worked. But then we realised our fleet would have to spend half their time mowing and watering it, so we switched to fake grass instead.’
Balon said an early decision to outsource manufacturing helped drive fast growth, as it removed one potential competitor from the market and allowed the trio to focus on product innovation, marketing and sales.
After four years of phenomenal success, Innocent’s ‘annus horribilis’ came in 2008. ‘Like a lot of people, we were caught out. We overhired, volumes fell, the collapse of sterling crushed our margins – and we had terrible fruit crops that year.’
Faced with the choice of staying independent and retrenching or seeking funding to continue its growth plans, the trio received investment from Coca-Cola. Since then, Innocent has doubled turnover to more than £200m and is Europe’s number one smoothie brand. Coca-Cola increased its stake in 2013 and the founders stepped down from day-to-day running of the business.
In growing a brand, Balon emphasised the importance of getting its purpose, vision and values down early on paper. ‘We asked our staff what we thought Innocent should be. One suggested “anti-guns and pro-cheese”, which wasn’t terribly helpful. But the things we settled on became core messages – and haven’t changed in 14 years.’