Inside the innocent AGM

As promised, here is the write-up of my trip to Fruit Towers last Saturday afternoon, as one of the 100 lucky folk to be invited to the innocent AGM ("A Grown up Meeting"). We got the inside line on the company’s key highlights of 2007, a preview of plans for 2008 and a chance to ask questions.

Lots of interesting learning (I save the best one for last):

1. Harness the power of your fans
Which other £100million company do you know would invite 100 of its fans to their HQ for an annual general meeting? And can you imagine how (even more) evangelical these 100 people are now going to be? So often, loyal users seem to be overlooked in the chase for new customers.

And its not just the AGM. innocent also do other smart stuff to stay in touch. Like the email newsletter they send out. Over 100,000 people have opted in to get this every week.


The personalised goodie bag we all got at the end was a lovely touch. This included a lovely mug, and a golden innocent bottle with my name on it, and some typically nice copy from Dan and his team:


2. The power of authentic, human leadership
The three founders/leaders of the business (Richard, Adam and John) presented the review of the year
and plans for 2008. And you can’t help but be inspired and engaged by these guys. They are enthusiastic, entertaining and committed. Not the qualities you associate with your average board of directors.

3. Product is king (again)Picture_4
I’ve hammered on at this point many a time. Most observers of innocent focus on the emotional sizzle. But the success of the brand is based on the product "sausage". Product was front and centre again at the AGM:
– John reinforced how hard they work at being the best tasting smoothies
– We all got to taste and vote on 2 prototypes for a new 2008 flavour based on damsons (this tasting was led by Lucy, head of product, who has been there for 8 years and leads a team of 6 product developers)
– We broke out into smaller groups for an hour, and these sessions were all about product. In particular, looking at different types of fruit, doing more tastings etc.

4. A new sort of big business?
With turnover of more than £100 million, innocent is no longer small. Its big. But its growing in a new way:
– Giving min. 10% of profits to charity. But taking this seriously, with most of it going to the innocent foundation, where they take a personal interest in the causes they support
– Staying independent. When questioned on the risk of innocent being taken over, Richard said there "were no plans for this at the moment". Hang on in there boys. PJ’s in the UK was bought by Pepsi; Odwalla in the US was bought by Coke… but let’s hope innocent do it different
– Brand activation that does a bit of good: 2008 will see a repeat of the Big Knit promotion that raises money for old people by knitting small hats for the bottles (target of 900 000 hats/£450 000 raised vs. 400 000 hats/£200 000 raised in 2007), and the "Buy One Get One Tree" promotion that in 2007 planted 164,000 trees in Africa
– Leading on sustainability: the first brand in the world to launch a 100% recycled bottle

5. Stick to what made you famous; spin off the rest
Was pleased to hear that the This Water business has been spun off a separate company, in a separate building. I had posted before on the risk of this new water brand (a re-launch and re-brand of innocent juicy water) stealing attention and resource from the core smoothie business, and diluting innocent’s fruit-based brand equity.

Interesting also that by removing the innocent brand (= fruit) and replacing it with This Water (= water) , and giving it some separate focus, the sales of the product have doubled. This is a big point. Too often brands see their strongly ingrained associations as something to fight against, launching new products in an attempt to "break out of the brand straight-jacket". A better idea is to reinforce these brand associations by sticking to what made you famous, and launch new products that don’t fit with these equities under a new brand.

6. "The earth’s favourite little food company"
Saved the biggest point till last. I really admire how innocent have grown by focusing on the core business, and growing by driving trial, getting new users and expanding geographically. And many more years of decent growth could come from this. Stella Artois in the UK grew for 25 years from 200 000 barrels to 2 million with a single product.

But the innocent vision is now to become "The Earth’s favourite little FOOD company". And Claire is "Head of the next big thing". This suggests plenty of brand stretching is on the cards.

I had a chat with Richard about this (I was chuffed that he was using one of my articles on "Sausage and sizzle" with the team). The challenge we discussed is how much more can you get from core smoothies, and has everyone who will try already tried the brand? With prompted awareness of c.85% and trial of only 10%, I still believe that that 75% of people who know but have not tried the brand is still a big opportunity. This could be addressed via more/new distribution, new formats, new flavours, looking at pricing.

And the risk of stretching into new markets is i) not having enough differentiation, ii) under-estimating how strong the competition is, and especially iii) diverting attention from the core business to play with the "new toy". What is reassuring is Richard saying they will only launch new products where they are "Genuinely better, delicious, have a point of difference and and ethical business system". I would add "fruit based", as I think this is a key part of the brand.

So, what a great opportunity it was to get an inside look at what is certainly my favourite little (but not so little) drinks company.