Ethics and personal touch prove a winner for brands

Innocent's ethical stance was a winner with the consumer. Picture: TSPL
Innocent's ethical stance was a winner with the consumer. Picture: TSPL
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Untainted ‘clean slate’ companies have an advantage over those with a long, possibly discredited history, reports Jane Bradley

WHEN Richard Reed, Adam Balon and Jon Wright served their homemade drinks from a stall at a music festival in 1999, they asked each punter to put their empty bottle in one of two bins: one marked “Yes” and one marked “No”.

The question was “Should we give up our jobs to make smoothies?”. All but three people voted Yes. Innocent Drinks was born.

The brand, which was launched as a homespun, independent, touchy-feely kind of enterprise, has since become a major business, now turning over £209 million a year and available at thousands of
supermarkets and cafes in 15 countries worldwide.

The launch of Innocent 15 years ago was perceived as a
revolution in branding – as a new company with a personal touch. Its quirky, irreverent marketing style with labels speaking directly to the consumer and a strong ethical stance (it donates 10 per cent of its profit to its own charitable foundation) has since been emulated by brands from Ella’s Kitchen baby food to food snackbox firm Graze.

But, according to website, this is exactly the kind of enterprise which now has most appeal to consumers, who are increasingly opting for “clean slate brands” – new, independently-owned companies which have no previous heritage or reputation, but are popular for that very reason.

“Clean slate brands often have ‘new’ business values – such as higher environmental, ethical and social standards – deeply baked into their business 
models and practices,” says website’s April Trends report.

The organisation argues that brands with a long history have often become discredited in recent times – often through
 financial problems sparked by the economic downturn. A distaste for big business is growing. According to a recent survey, only 28 per cent of consumers trust big business in the UK 
compared with 33 per cent in the US and 34 per cent in Canada. In emerging markets however, consumers’ trust levels in heavily recognised brands are much higher – at 83 per cent in China, 72 per cent in Turkey and 65 per cent in Brazil and India.

Ten years ago, big brands were king. Fashion, leisure, food and drink. If other people liked it, it was the way to go. Gradually, however, obscurity has 
become cool. Celebrities are constantly quoting bands, fashion designers or directors few people are familiar with. And the more obscure, the cooler it is.

“New products and services are now actually often more
surprising, more convenient, more intuitive – and thus better – than established alternatives, if there are alternatives to begin with,” says the report.

“And the ongoing megatrend towards consumers demanding brand honesty too – which new brands unencumbered by legacy can embrace more quickly and effectively than anyone – means that new brands are often more trusted or even respected than their familiar, historied counterparts.”

The report argues that a new brand is far less likely to be a blind leap into the unknown than it would have been some years ago – due mainly to the availability of online reviews and peer marketing.

Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and the likes of Tripadvisor are all methods of marketing for new brands. Google the tiniest restaurant in a city anywhere in the world and you will unearth some kind of opinion or review.

“People look for validation beyond anything that a brand is saying itself,” says Susanna Freedman, head of brand at Edinburgh marketing agency Emperor. “And social media does that. But people are definitely less loyal these days – they take the ‘next best thing’, but then someone tells them about the new ‘next best thing’ and they decide to give it a go. There is less equity invested in the relationship than there was years ago.” A YouGov survey late last year revealed Britain’s top ten most trusted brands – headed by BBC iPlayer and followed by John Lewis and Amazon. A glance at the list shows it is clear that is right.

While they may be big business now, 20 years ago, only one of those brands existed – good old “never knowingly undersold” John Lewis. The others are all technology-based, meaning that by definition, they are fairly new. iPlayer – albeit an offshoot of the old faithful BBC – wasn’t launched until 2007. Amazon shipped its first book in the UK as long ago as 1998, but it was a number of years before it 
became a household name.

However, even the “clean slate” brands are still, just that – brands – albeit ones which are still in their infancy. In 2009, 
Innocent sold a minority stake to Coca Cola – one of the world’s longest established, most heavily “big business” corporations – a stake which was upped to more than 90 per cent of the company in February.

“For a fast growth brand, it has remained true to its values,” says Ms Freedman. “How they have managed that and the engagement they have carried out on social media with people who said ‘Hang on – what do you mean you’re owned by Coca Cola and you’re available in McDonalds?’ has created a deeper, more meaningful relationship with their customers, which is impressive.”

She adds: “I think if you can get these things – whether you’re a brand which has been around 100 years and has managed to remain relevant, or are a total new brand and can demonstrate consistency and can demonstrate that your brand is compelling and meaningful to the target audience – that will build a community of people who
believe in you.”