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Publication: Business Brainwave, 2005

Richard Reed’s Innocent vision for the British Food Industry

It’s a safe bet many entrepreneurs would give their right arm for the bank balance, strategic vision or consumer loyalty that belong Richard Reed, the lean, charismatic 32-year-old founder of Innocent Smoothies. Most would equally envy his skin tone – the happy radiance of lustrous health of a kind that just can’t be achieved through a takeaway diet grazed under twin suns of office lighting and monitor gamma rays. As Reed’s Innocent brand maintains a hyperaccelerated sales curve, continually evolving the product range and expanding international distribution beyond an annual turnover of £14m, Reed claims to drink up to eight smoothies a day. It shows.

Innocent’s inventive drinks – smoothies, yoghurt-based ‘Thickies’ and lighter ‘Juicy Waters’ - are produced additive-free from 100 per cent natural ingredients, and are delivered in as ethical and sustainable a manner as possible. In many ways 32-year-old Reed embodies both the core equities of his brand just as he does the benefits of his products: he ceaselessly evangelises the benefits of natural food and the notion that healthy living needn’t be dull. Meanwhile, a palpable lust for life and a set of communication skills learnt on climbing walls, snowboard runs and ad agencies – he is responsible for the quirky copy on product labels - suggest he is the UK’s Mr Smoothie on more ways than one. Girls in the company’s west London’s office ‘Fruit Tower’s may agree; judges who gave Reed and co-founders Adam Balon and John Wright the 2004 Etntrepreneur of the Year award clearly do.

But what Reed really symbolises is a successful combination of a belief in the power of ideas, and a dedication to their execution, the vital mix of creativity and acumen that the British economy demands today. Reed can trace a spark of entrepreneurialism back to his window-washing business (aged four), but he is reluctant to see himself as a businessman in any traditional sense. ‘I have a lot of ideas and not all of them are in business,’ he says. ‘I would see myself as a dreamer who does. I can handle myself in a meeting, but what gets me going is to prove that there can be ethics - to make something that’s good for people, deliver it in a sustainable manner and share a bit of wealth along the way. That touches all my business buttons.’

Innocent’s success could never have been predicted - few of us had heard of, let a lone drunk a smoothie just a decade ago. Nor were the circumstances of its genesis - on a ski slope, to be precise – usual. ‘We’d been talking about setting up a company for ten years’ he recalls. ‘We said, “Right, either we do it or stop talking about it”. So we came up with idea – two properly lousy ones, and then smoothies.’

One of those ideas was to market self-filling baths with programmable temperature gauges. It was wisely junked over its inadvisable proximity of electricity and water, and Reed and co duly ditched physics in favour of biology. Specifically they focused on selling that which the majority of people are becoming increasingly distanced from – nature – and did so at a time when consumer sensitivity to the new political issues surrounding food was growing faster than ever: the obesity epidemic, supermarket monopolies, scandals over GM, BSE, Sudan-1 and the move towards organic and local produce. ‘Nature, man, just nature,’ Reed enthuses today (he has just learned his products’ favourably low GI rating in lab tests). ‘Food has stopped being a thing you could buy with impunity. No matter what is says on the front, it’s usually a marketing hatchet job. But nature always delivers what you need.’

Their idea of a business plan, back in February 1998, was having almost no idea whatsoever. Reed, Balon and Wright worked from home and in a masterstroke of smooth-it-yourself initiative, discovered that the best way to get drinks stocked in shops was by going into shops and asking for the drinks to be stocked.

‘The idea that you don’t wait for someone’s permission totally resonates with me,’ Reed says. ‘You could commission some management consultants to do an in-depth study. Or you could walk into a shop and see if you could sell smoothie. Simplicity wins every time. Keep everything as pared down and natural and human as possible.’

What’s clear is that the trust invested in Innocent by consumers mirrors the almost naive honesty of their business plan and the enduring transparency of their marketing pitch. All told, it’s the same flavour of ethical foodie evangelism that turned Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream into a global brand.

‘It’s the classic cliché,’ Reed says. ‘You understand which rules of the games to break and which to adhere to. We were 26, never run a company. The titans of the industry said, ‘guys, your need to use concentrate, you need preservatives.” We knew that sounded like rubbish advice. We didn’t know much, but what we did know was that people like natural, healthy things that taste good.

‘Plus,’ Reed adds, ‘what’s the worst thing that can happen? Yes of course, it could fail and it could be a disaster, but even if it does it won’t be that bad, and actually, it’s quite a good laugh…’

Scan the fake turf-lined walls, day-glo bean bags and beer gardens tables inside Fruit Towers, and it would appear that a Good Laugh is as important a strategy as any othetr. Have fun, get healthy and make money. Today nature herself appears to be very much on Innocent’s side.

© Kevin Braddock, 2005


All content ©2004 Kevin Braddock

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