From Zappas to Abba?

How the hippies took over the world of branding

From the Brand Historian’s Timeline, 1998

There’s nothing like a hot new brand to create a wave of jealousy, especially in large corporations. One of the constant questions the mega-corps ask consultants is “How can we innovate better?” and by this, they don’t mean the usual yawn list of tweaks and line extensions, but the big, shiny market development initiatives that set the marketing and business agenda.

The Brand Historian has also been fascinated by this question and over the years has studied many companies – large and small – and their systems for creating new products.  Two classic types are evident. Channelling a musical theme, we termed big corporations stacked to the gunwales with brands and best practice manuals as ABBA companies, inspired by the Swedish maestros of the mainstream who created a stream of global hits. The smaller companies, many of whom act like insurgents or disruptors we called Zappas, inspired by Frank Zappa. It was Frank who said that “without deviation, progress is not possible” and famously directed us to zig, when everybody else was zagging.

One of the most exciting and successful Zappas we studied was Innocent, the populariser of smoothies in the UK, complete with those little hats knitted by grannies. Launched in 1998, Innocent was amongst a new wave of brands that began to appear with a fresh, very un-packaged goods voice and showing a new design sensibility. Three lads from Cambridge set it up – Jon, Adam and Richard- all of whom gave up good jobs in consulting and advertising. Famously, Innocent was set up with £500 worth of fruit and a slightly bigger dollop of Dragon investment capital. While smoothies were still very new in the UK, they had been around for over 70 years in the USA, pretty much after Steve Poplawski invented the electric blender in the late 1930s. Health and well-being trends and California beach lifestyles helped popularise a number of smoothie brands, including Smoothie King and Naked.

Smoothies would now be the prime focus of the boys from St John’s, their prototypes having passed the music festival test market in West London. It’s been said by their Dragon, Maurice Pinto, that the smoothie was only a vehicle; it was the means, not the end. The real prize would be the creation of a powerful brand phenomenon that could grow beyond mere blended fruit. 

And in the competitive world of marketing, Innocent became everybody’s favourite brand disruptor case history. With a name which owned a rich hinterland and a brand voice that was accessible, friendly and honest, the whole mix was a perfect amalgam of intrinsics and extrinsics—and beautifully executed with imaginative field marketing, delivered by staff from the Fruit Towers HQ who were themselves brilliant exemplars of the brand philosophy. There was something of the progressive Californian hippie in the brand’s genetic blueprint. Innocent wanted to show the world that you could make great tasting products with good natural ingredients; you could do good, have some fun, and you could also make money.

Of course, this was not exactly a completely new story. In 1978 Ben Greenfield and Jerry Cohen had launched their chunk-packed super-premium ice cream. In their utterly on-brand and off-centre corporate history (The Real Scoop, 1998), they obligingly provide the following definition of a hippie:

 “A member of a loosely knit, non-conformist group, especially one that rejects conventional social mores and accepts universal love and wants to make the world a groovier place.” 

The book is a superb primer for creative, community-based brand activation that is still as relevant as ever.

In a strange quirk of the narrative arc, both Innocent and Ben and Jerry’s gave up their hard-won independence in 2013. Ben Jerry’s was sold to Unilever for $326 million. In the same deal, Slimfast was bought for a hefty $2.3 billion, making Ben and Jerry’s a real bargain by any standard. Meanwhile, Innocent’s three founders sold their remaining equity to Coca Cola, which valued the company at £320 million. 

So, in the stories of Innocent and Ben and Jerry’s, we can see an answer to that question posed by the big ABBA organisations. Rather than desperately trying to grow their own, ABBA companies should probably buy their Zappas. And here’s the thing: when Ben and Jerry’s was sold to Unilever, I heard one of their founders say that it was actually a reverse takeover, which given Unilever’s championing of social and environmental matters is not at all unreasonable. But as for Innocent- is it still? 

1998: Music for Fruitstock 

Robbie Williams Angels

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