The creation of Innocent Drinks – the healthy smoothies made from natural ingredients – began early in 1998, when the company’s founders were still students at Cambridge University.
What started out as an idea to make money at music festivals has turned into a global company with a net worth of around $500 million.
Richard Reed, Jon Wright and Adam Balon had become friends at St John’s College, Cambridge, in the 1990s. During a snowboarding holiday, they began talking about starting their own business – and unlike many people who dream of being their own boss, they actually launched a company.
Being at university can be difficult enough without also starting a business, but the three friends managed to turn their idea into a massive success – taking the plunge after some rather unusual market research.
They experimented with making different smoothies for around six months in 1998. They had graduated from university and taken employment in advertising and consulting, while continuing with their plan for a soft drinks business. They sold their smoothies to the public for the first time at a London music festival later that year.
They conducted their market research with customers at their stall. A sign above the stall read: “Should we give up our jobs to make these smoothies?”
Customers were asked to throw their empty cups into one of two bins, one marked “yes” and one marked “no”. The “yes” bin won hands down, with only three cups in the “no” bin, so they all resigned from their jobs to start working on their drinks company full-time.
It wasn’t easy to set up the company, as they had to write a business plan – which their website describes as the “boring bit”! Initially, no one wanted to invest in the business, and they had to rewrite their business plan an astounding 11 times to try and drum up interest.
Still every bank, business angel and venture capitalist in London turned them down. Eventually, out of desperation, they sent a mail shot to literally everyone they knew, with the blunt subject title: “Does anyone know anyone rich?”
Reed said later that after they left their jobs, they ended up with no money except for one month’s salary each, which they had to make last for as long as possible. They ran up debts of around £15,000 each on credit cards and through overdrafts, and things were getting desperate.
Finally, they had a very lucky break when a wealthy American businessman, Maurice Pinto, offered to invest £250,000 in their company. It took 15 more months of hard work before the finished product was finally ready to be marketed.
One of the challenges was finding a suitable name that captured the natural, healthy spirit of the brand. This alone took nine months, as they came up with all sorts of names – including Fast Tractor, Hungry Aphid, Nude and Naked, before they finally decided on the name Innocent.
The first day of business, when the inaugural sale was made, was 28th April 1999. Wright sold three cases of Innocent smoothies to their local sandwich bar, called Out To Lunch, over the road from their London office.
Their office (known as Fruit Towers) was a very small room with large computers. Initially, their desks were large cardboard boxes, and they cracked their head on the low ceiling support beams every time they stood up!
To start, there were three flavours of smoothies, made with whole crushed fruit and juice. The brand began to take off in 1999, when they won their first entrepreneur’s award, the regional Shell Livewire accolade, and took on extra staff to cope with the growing demand.
In 2000, they launched a new product, Thickies, which had extra fruit. They also started sending weekly newsletters to subscribers and were commissioned by Waitrose supermarkets for a trial run selling smoothies in-store. The trial was a success and setting up shop at trade shows assured Innocent of more sales.
Over the years, Innocent launched their own range of delivery vehicles, including vans painted to look like a black and white cow and “dancing grass” vans, decorated to look like they were covered in grass blowing in the wind.
In 2001, they moved to new offices at Shepherd’s Bush, where they began their first advertising campaign, Made by Nature. They launched their first Innocent smoothie recipe book and one year later, they opened a new office in Dublin. The launch of big smoothies in 750ml bottles and Juicy Water followed in 2003.
They began donating money to charity and gave away 46% of their profits in 2003. Later, they realised this hadn’t been a shrewd business move, as they were left with financial issues. As a result, they decided to launch their own registered charity, The Innocent Foundation, in 2004. To date, it has supported 67 different environmental projects.
The same year, Innocent opened its overseas offices in Amsterdam and Paris and its continued growth as a global brand began. Productivity increased by 650% and new products hit the shelves, including Super Smoothies and regular smoothies in larger one-litre cartons.
Expanding continually to accommodate current trends, such as recycling, coconut water and dairy free products, the company’s primary product is still the smoothies, consisting of whole crushed fruit and juices. New drinks have been introduced, including ingredients such as ginger and carrots.
Innocent’s juice for kids has become popular, as has its not-from-concentrate juice range and the new carbonated Innocent Bubbles drinks. One 330ml Innocent Bubbles drink contains only 97 kilocalories, no salt and 19.5g of sugar. Each can contains one of your five-a-day portions of fruit juice diluted with sparkling water.
Including blends of fruit, vegetables, crushed flax seeds, botanicals and added vitamins, Super Smoothies were released in March 2014. The following year, another new range of cold press fruit and vegetable juices was launched.
The original founders of Innocent have now moved on to ventures new and the brand is owned by The Coca-Cola Company. In April 2009, Innocent announced it was to sell a stake of between 10% and 20% to The Coca-Cola Company for £30 million.
One year later, Coca-Cola increased its stake to 58%, investing a further £65 million. Coca-Cola increased its stake further in February 2013 to more than 90% – the three founders kept a small minority holding.
Speaking afterwards of the sale, Reed said the time had been right, as he had great people working underneath him who were developing their careers and were ready to step up to the next level.
New products, including coconut water, resulted in a sales surge in June 2016. New products boosted sales by £28 million. Revenues continue to rise – last year, the revenue was reportedly £247.4 million – an increase of 13% on the previous 12 months.
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