Innocent Drinks Masterclass

Market-leading drinks company Innocent served up a Breakthrough Masterclass that combined tailored learning and focused topics to provide a refreshing insight into the challenges facing fast-growth companies

In the space of just over a decade, Innocent has established itself as an iconic British company, with a market-leading position in its home territory and across much of Europe. Established in 1999, the company famously came into being after its three founders tried out their smoothie drinks at a London music festival. Festivalgoers were asked to vote on whether the stallholders should go into business. The answer was a resounding ‘yes’ and Innocent was formed.

The Innocent brand is still very much associated with smoothies, but the company has since diversified its range and today’s product lines include juices, purees and veg pots. That diversification has been important in the company’s growth story. Innocent is the number-one smoothie brand in the UK and in many of the European territories where the product is sold. However, as Head of Fruit Sam Simister explains, the company’s growth has been maintained by new lines. “The smoothie market has become commoditised,” she says. “At the moment it’s the juices that are growing our brand.”

Growth has also been supported by strong branding. As any visitor to the website will see, Innocent has a unique and informal way of presenting itself and its eccentricity (which extends to woolly hats for smoothie bottles) and has thus captured the hearts and wallets of the British public. This branding has translated well into overseas markets, although marketing and communications are localised. “We always hire local people from the host nations, and we do adapt the branding in each country,” says Sam, pictured below.

Learning from experience

Innocent hosted a Breakthrough Masterclass. Launched under the umbrella of the Breakthrough programme, the Masterclass initiative is designed to support small and medium-sized but fast-growing businesses by arranging tours of companies that have already made the successful transition from ambitious contender to market leader.

Rapid expansion typically throws up huge management challenges. By visiting successful companies such as Innocent, Masterclasses give delegate business owners the opportunity to learn not only from the experiences of the host but also from their peers. And as Sam points out, the benefits are not confined to the delegates. “I was keen to take part for two reasons,” she says. “As a company, we are always keen to support entrepreneurs. But the Masterclass was also an opportunity for our own people – our future leaders – to step out of their day-to-day roles and take time out to think about the issues on the agenda. It was also great for them to be exposed to other businesses and it was an opportunity for them to think about what our business has achieved and how it has achieved it.”

The delegates attending Masterclass events represent a broad cross-section of the UK business community and represent no bias towards any particular sector. Innocent was therefore keen to focus on topics with a broad appeal. “We chose the topics carefully because we knew that we had to cater for a diverse range of businesses,” says Sam. “The first step was to discuss the possibilities for the day with Santander. Then we honed it down to four subjects that we thought would be of particular interest. They were: international expansion; people and culture; marketing and social networking; and managing the supply chain.”

Tackling topics

Each Masterclass host has its own particular style when it comes to how their event is organised and Innocent decided on an approach that would allow its managers to interact as closely as possible with the visitors. Delegates were divided into small groups and each group moved from session to session as the day progressed. Rather than running through the agenda topic-by-topic, each group would spend time with an Innocent manager with specific expertise before moving on to another. “It was rather like a speed-dating session,” Sam laughs.

This approach created an environment where issues could be discussed freely within small groups. “That was important from our point of view,” explains Sam. “We wanted delegates to get a lot out of the day and we wanted our people to get something out of it as well.” That’s not so say the sessions were unstructured. At each table, an Innocent manager began the session by presenting on the topic, after which the subject was opened up for discussion and debate.

According to David Packham, founder of self-serve frozen yoghurt company, Samba Swirl, the visit to Innocent provided a rich source of information and insight. David’s company occupies a similar sector to that of Innocent, so the Masterclass was of particular interest to him. But most topics had a wide appeal, such as the maintenance of core culture when growing and hiring.

“It was good to get the perspective of Innocent – particularly their philosophy that it’s better to have a hole in the team than someone who doesn’t fit in.” Innocent’s approach to procurement was also of huge interest. “I think one thing they really highlighted was that you don’t have to accept problems with your supply chain. You can take control of that,” says David, pictured above.

For her part, Sam says feedback from the day indicated that it was a success. “I’ve had a number of emails from delegates asking if they can continue the conversations,” she says. “I think people went away happy.”

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