Book review: Did it really go so smoothly?, by Richard Reed and Dan Germain

The runaway success of Innocent is an inspiring tale indeed, but then there's that Coca-Cola stake. William Kendall wonders what the founders were thinking.

Last Updated: 25 Oct 2010

A Book About Innocent: Our story and the things we've learned
Richard Reed and Dan Germain

I must have been one of the first to come across the phenomenon of Innocent - it may even have been in the early days before anybody had come up with the name Innocent. Back then, they were toying with calling their fruit smoothies 'Fast Tractor'. (They didn't. Good call, guys). Anyway, it was early 1999 and I was doing strategy in the cafe on the square in the Portobello Road, west London. Neil, the head of sales at Green & Black's, had kicked me out of the spare bedroom we were using as an office because he wanted to call customers on the phone we shared.

I was a bit miffed, but customers come first. So I went across the road for a coffee and some strategy. Easily distracted, I quickly tuned into a surprisingly articulate salesman at the counter. He looked different and was trying to sell some small, bright bottles of juice to the owner. He was a bit awkward, but the cafe owner seemed to like his pitch. You get some weird people in the Portobello Road trying to sell some weird stuff, so a nice man talking about healthy smoothies was probably rather refreshing. Nevertheless, he left without making a sale.

It seemed odd, but I now know that I was witnessing a piece of fundamental market research by one of the founders of the now ubiquitous Innocent drinks business. The exercise was to establish whether anyone wanted to buy the stuff.

They did. A few weeks later, all of us at G&B were drinking it in the cafe over the road. And a few years later, millions more were drinking and eating Innocent's smoothies, thickies and even their veg pots. It's a great story and you can now read it all for yourself in A Book About Innocent: Our story and the things we've learned. It's written by Innocent's co-founder Richard Reed and its head of creative, Dan Germain.

Your reviewer, living among piles of unread books, adopts a rather harsh test these days. Do we need this book? As a management textbook, probably not. It's undeniably a better read, but not an essential item for a business school library. Those of us who've had the luck to get a consumer brand airborne can be bitchy about other successful brands and sound like we've invented a small continent when we describe our successes. But it feels that way when you have defied the advice of all the naysayers and made your first profit.

In reality, Innocent has not changed the course of history. Before it arrived, there were quite a few nice fruit drinks around - even smoothies. On the health front, they've got us all obsessed about 'never from concentrate', yet the nutritional issues are, as always, more complex. What Innocent has done brilliantly is to find a simple product idea that meets the broad needs of our time - and the perfect voice for communicating it.

In an age of cynicism, with growing antipathy towards the state and its many agents, this Innocent voice has sounded a note of refreshing defiance. If, like me, you find the jokes on the labels almost as appealing as the yogurt, vanilla and honey thickie, then this book will not disappoint. An occasional whiff of self-importance is quickly blasted away with a gag about cheese sandwiches or plump nuns.

For the business-minded, the story is missing a chapter. When it was announced recently that Coke had bought a strategic stake, it may not have been the sell-out of which the owners stood accused, but it would have been good to hear about their underlying thinking.

One suspects that things have not been very easy recently - margin pressure on premium products, currency weakness and higher raw material prices have all conspired against Innocent, and this may have influenced the decision. After a runaway success, it is hard to talk about the low points, yet these are the most interesting, and discussing them takes nothing away from the overall success.

If the book does disappoint as a lesson for management, it triumphs as a clarion call for entrepreneurship. It's a book to hand to anybody who hopes to start a business one day. It is a must for somebody who keeps putting off the day just to get one more bonus cheque. As they say, the defining feature of the successful is that 'they are the ones who actually got started'.

Starting a new business is hugely risky, and reading this book is not going to alter the odds significantly. What it does do, however, is show just how much fun you can have in the process - especially if it works. Most important of all, it records how fulfilling it can be for everybody to work on a mission against the odds. Doing such a job is a hundred times more exciting than most alternatives, so the people who create them need a big slap on the back. Well done, boys.

William Kendall is a former CEO of Covent Garden Soups and Green & Black's, and is now a G&B director

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