Calling your business Innocent sets the ethical bar pretty high. Much like Google’s company mantra “don’t be evil,” which has come to haunt the search giant whenever it does anything controversial, assuming the mantle of saintliness can be a hostage to fortune.
But on Monday, Innocent — maker of fruit smoothies for stressed city workers — put its right-on credentials on the line when it sold a stake in the business to the world’s biggest drinks group, Coca-Cola, for £30 million (US$45 million).
The deal would appear to mark a major change of direction for the eco-friendly, health-conscious group, which distributes drinks in vans that have been modified to look like cows.
Based at west London offices dubbed Fruit Towers, Innocent markets itself unconventionally, by running “village fetes” and the Fruitstock festival in Regent’s Park — a far cry from the multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns run by its new partner, which dominates the global soft drinks market.
Innocent was founded by Adam Balon, Jon Wright and Richard Reed. The trio met as undergraduates at Cambridge, and it is 10 years to the month since they launched their venture, having come up with the idea on a snowboarding holiday and tested their smoothie skills at a music festival.
On its first day, selling from a shop in Ladbroke Grove, west London, Innocent shifted just 24 bottles — and none the following day. But today the company has its products stocked in 11,000 outlets across Europe and sells 2 million smoothies a week, which should bring in turnover of £105 million this year. It employs 250 staff and has operations in Ireland, France, Scandinavia, Germany and Austria.
Innocent is not the first small, independent-minded company to bring in a large corporate investor: UK sandwich chain Pret A Manger sold a stake to McDonald’s before selling up to a private equity group last year; the ice-cream maker Ben & Jerry’s was bought by Unilever; and the chocolate company Green & Blacks was taken over by Cadbury.
The three founders, who each own about 20 percent of the company’s shares, say they are committed to the company for the long term. In a letter on the Innocent Web site explaining Coca-Cola’s investment, they thanked their customers: “Without you, we’d just have an expensive fruit-crushing hobby.”