The revolutionary sect that set the bar for brand innovation

From the Brand Historian’s Timeline: Bristol, 1822

Amongst the brands that defined my over confected youth and won my heart was the fruity fondant deliciousness of Fry’s Five Centre – a pocket-sized dark chocolate slab containing seams of pineapple, raspberry, lime, orange and strawberry cream, all wrapped up in sensuously thin foil. Five Centre was never one of the mainstream countlines which appeared in the school playground; rather, it owned a Maverick niche. It was produced by Fry’s of Bristol, founded by Joseph Fry in 1761, and expanded by Joseph Storrs Fry, who developed a patent for grinding cocoa beans. In the early nineteenth century, Fry’s built a reputation for making innovative and sophisticated confectionery. Apart from its signature brand, Peppermint Cream (1866), Fry’s also created the first solid chocolate bar, the first chocolate Easter egg and the definitive British presentation of Turkish Delight (1914), famously full of Eastern promise. At the end of the First World War, Fry’s merged with Cadbury’s of Bourneville, but Fry’s had more in common with Cadbury than just chocolate: Both businesses were owned by prominent Quaker families.

In the heady days of the 1970s, when fast-moving packaged goods set the standards for great brand management, there was much debate whether Unilever or P&G educated the best brand managers. In my book (Bluff Your Way in Marketing, Ravette), the award for the most creative and innovative school of brand management goes to a revolutionary sect founded long before the soap giants, who called themselves The Society of Friends, more familiarly known to us as the Quakers. Apparently, this was because the Friends were known to tremble at the very mention of the name of God.

In the mid-seventeenth century, George Fox founded this movement when the British Isles were torn asunder by civil war and religious ferment. Fox was an impressive itinerant preacher who believed there is a bit of God in everybody and consequently saw no need for Priests. This was radical stuff that a few years before might have got him burnt as a heretic. But in the nervously uncertain years after the Stuart Restoration, religious dissent was tolerated if it didn’t get mixed up with politics or, for that matter, any other part of the Establishment. Test Acts were put in place, which in effect kept Quakers and other non-conformists out of the Army, the Church, Parliament and any other Crown office.

But that didn’t prevent Quaker families from setting up businesses. Quite the opposite, because such discriminatory laws positively encouraged Quaker families to become entrepreneurs. Quaker businesses were soon achieving success throughout Britain. They had a strong belief in individual spirit but a willingness to collaborate and network; they had a capacity for hard work and a reputation for truth and honesty. Indeed, over the next couple of centuries, Quaker businesses were to have a massively disproportionate effect on the landscape of British industry. 

Fry’s (1761), Cadbury (1824), Rowntree (1862) in confectionery; Huntley and Palmer (1822) and Carr’s (1831) in biscuits; Clark’s (1825) in footwear, not to mention Barclays (1690), Lloyd’s (1769) in banking; Friends Provident (1832) in insurance. Quaker influence is also very strong in several Twentieth Century mega-charities: Oxfam (1942), Amnesty International (1961) and Greenpeace (1971). 

Today, it is very fashionable for brands to talk about Purpose as if this notion was completely novel. At a time when many brands obsess about finding their Purpose, it is worth reflecting on the contribution of this small, radical movement founded by George Fox. The Quakers not only created some of Britain’s greatest brands but did so while incubating businesses that also exemplified a distinctive style of caring capitalism. Oh, and one of these also made The Brand Historian’s favourite chocolate bar.

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