Saturday, September 29, 2007

Why I hate Innocent

OK, so I only wrote the heading above out of a childish desire to shock. And, of course, it isn't true: like everyone else, I love delicious Innocent smoothies, and warmly admire their witty way with words, especially on their packaging. But I can think of three reasons why those cheery folk from Fruit Towers don't inspire quite as much warmth in me as they once did.

First, I'm fed up with hearing people talk about the desirability of "doing an Innocent". What do they actually mean? If all they are trying to say is that it's a good idea for businesses to use words in a way that helps to set them apart from their competitors, then I couldn't agree more. But I suspect that, more often, the Innocent wannabes don't really understand what it is they are aspiring to.

So let's be clear: Innocent haven't pulled off some clever marketing trick. Their much loved "tone of voice" wasn't devised by highly paid teams of branding specialists, armed with pie charts and research findings. It was, I'm 99.9% certain, simply how the founders of the business talked among themselves about what they were doing.

Of course, I don't mean to suggest that there isn't any art involved. All that lovely stuff about squishing loads of fruit and bunging it in bottles is beautifully crafted. But my point is that the distinctive way in which Innocent communicate is intrinsic: a near-perfect expression of who they are and what they believe in. And, crucially, it's been there since the start, when three blokes came up with a brilliantly simple business idea (squish loads of fruit and bung it in bottles).

So how could, say, a High Street bank or a car manufacturer or an airline ever hope to "do an Innocent"? Simple: they couldn't. And if they were ill advised enough to try, they would end up looking very foolish indeed. (Yes, I'm looking at you, Barclays.)

The second thing I'm less than thrilled about is the apparently widespread belief that Innocent have invented an entirely new way of using words. Not true. Yes, they do it outstandingly well; but there's nothing ground-breaking about a jokey, highly colloquial style of writing that engages chummily with the reader and happily veers off into apparent (but not actual) irrelevance. I could show you quite a few bits and pieces I've written that show a strong "Innocent influence" - or would do, if it wasn't the fact they I wrote them a decade or two before the first smoothie was blended. (And yes, I'm perfectly aware I sound like a grumpy old fart.)

What Innocent have done that is unique is to build a major brand on this style of verbal communication; and that, I freely concede, is a huge achievement in its own right. Because, normally, as businesses grow they lose the ability to talk with a distinctive voice - especially the kind that can make people laugh. All those "Innocent style" communications I've written over the years have been for small-to-minuscule-businesses: start-up design consultancies, a two woman creative recruitment company, a designer of crazy golf courses, and so on.

Third, and this is the really sacrilegious bit, I just ever so slightly wonder if they might be losing it a bit? I have to say that when I say their new "This water" brand extension, I found something vaguely smug and irritating about it. And just the other day, my 22 year old daughter remarked (unprompted by me) on how annoying she now finds Innocent. If cool recent graduates are starting to fall out of love with the brand (a big if, admittedly, since my observation is based on a sample of one). I wonder if Innocent might be reaching the point where it's just a little too big and successful to retain its fabled sense of humour? I, for one, find it harder to share a laugh with a business that's recently got into bed with McDonald's, however convincingly it argues the ethical case for doing so.

Anyway, those are my reservations. And I know that, since Innocent have made zillions of pounds as well as winning several thousand top creative awards, that this little rant of mine is sure to sound like sour grapes; a kind of fruit, incidentally, that Innocent would never dream of squishing and bunging in a bottle.


At 3:57 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Lindsay.

My name's Dan and I write most of the copy at innocent. I liked your post - it's pretty much spot on. We didn't set out to invent a tone - it comes from the fact that we're friends and that's how we talk. We never had a weird session where we formulated a tone. We just wrote stuff.

As for people getting fed up with us, I guess it comes with the territory. The bigger our company gets and the more popular our drinks become, the more chance there is of people not liking what we do or say. Tall poppy syndrome, or perhaps that slightly British thing of not being into pop groups once they get popular.

Or maybe we just got worse. It's pretty hard for me to tell - I'm just writing like I've always written. I guess it's for others to judge if we've gone off the boil.

At 12:59 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just to add as well that I think the reason Innocent have been so phenomenally successful is not just because they've got a distinctive tone of voice and visual appeal - but that what lies behind it all (apart from Dan's unpleasant beard) is the fact that they have a great product - which innovated by being sellable in the chiller for a much longer period than was previously possible with smoothie - type drinks, that captured a nascent market just before it went massive, and had the solid business (pricing, operations / logistics as well as marketing) brains to make it work.

In fact it is a great example of how marketing works when 'marketing' means more than just tone of voice and advertising. It means 'taking a product to market' in all its facets.

At 7:45 am, Blogger Lindsay said...

Thanks very much for the comments, Dan and Tom. I absolutely agree with the very persuasive points you both make.

You're right, Dan, that it's harder to love a hugely successful brand. I remember the thrill of discovering Innocent in the late 90s, and yes, it was very like stumbling upon a fantastic band that none of my friends had never heard of. (In fact, I think the first time I came across Innocent was judging the D&AD Writing for Design category in its first year, 1999; and, bizarrely, my rather hazy recollection is that I had to make an impassioned speech to persuade my fellow judges that this was work worthy of recognition.)

And, Tom, I couldn't agree more with your "taking a product to market" point. That, I suppose, is what I was trying to say about companies like Barclays, which seem to think that shoving a few chirpily phrased posters in the windows of their branches will somehow compensate for the fact that they treat their customers like total crap.

At 4:38 pm, Blogger Mike Reed said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 4:40 pm, Blogger Mike Reed said...

Hi Lindsay

I'm with you on This Water. (And Barclays.)

In fact, I wrote about it on my own site recently, if you're interested:

Poor old Innocent are damned every which way now. If they stick with their tone they'll be accused of getting stuck in a rut, and if they change they'll be accused of selling out, etc.

Clearly, they need to stay true to themselves and ride out any snipey criticism. Given that their tone really is theirs, and not a brand consultancy's creation, I'm sure that's what they'll do.

Keep up the good work, anyway...


PS: I only deleted this before because of a typo. Can't be doing with typos.

At 5:08 pm, Blogger Richard Owsley said...

Hi Lindsay, hope you're well and not fighting over parking spaces. I was going to tell you what Dan Germain said at a very good presentation I saw him give, but he's written in and told you himself.

Anyway, we're still getting upwards of one brief a month asking for Innocent ToV. The latest for an Executive Search Consultancy can you believe? (We'll get you a really good job and if we don't you can tell our mums!)

Of course, none of them has been successful because once a client sees their company in Innocent ToV they blanch, and say that's not what they meant. Or that it's not in Innocent ToV. Perhaps I should simply forward the briefs to Dan and take a cut? And let the client tell him he's not very good at copying the Innocent ToV.

Keep in touch, Richard Owsley

At 6:06 pm, Blogger Lindsay said...

Thanks very much for the comments, Mike and Richard.

Mike, thanks for the link to your blog - almost spookily sentiments to my own. Interesting that we reacted so similarly to This Water.

And Richard, very good to have my suspicions confirmed that there are lots of people out there aspiring to the Innocent TOV without having a clue what they really mean by that. Let's have that coffee soon.

At 12:37 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dan is being disingenuous, but this is typical of the brand, proposition, product and their choice of partners. Innocent is entirely the product of brand-literate advertising people including planners, who are the people who draw up the floor-plans for bands. it's a nice enough brand, and i'm prepared to believe that they are not "evil" in the way that they approach their business, their staff, their brand and their consumers. however, at the end of the day they thrive on the sort of ex-yuppie 1st-kid endlessly-concerned-but-unchanging unthinking liberalism that is a major part of the problem. Driving a Rover to the bottle-bank and all that.
It's pointless inaction and they're just adding to the general noise with their damp bobble-hat and loveable grin approach to life.
Notwithstanding all that, their recent TV add is just clumsy and being dressed up in down on the farm whimsy just makes it that much more irritating. There's a fundamental flaw in what they're trying to communicate: For adults, "bits in" is meant to be a "good thing" but the kids version is "without bits". For Christ sake guys, credit us with at least a modicum of intelligence.

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