Being innocent, with Dan Germain

Dan started working at Innocent from its very inception in 1999 and today is responsible for the brand globally. To him, brand is far more than overseeing design and copy on packaging, adverts and digital: it’s about shaping areas that fundamentally define the business inside and out, including areas like people, culture, sustainability, innovation and ethics.

Everything Dan speaks about is rooted in the idea of business 'being human'. His advice to fledging entrepreneurs: do a bit of soul searching, know your values, know what drives you, and make sure you’re building towards this vision with a team who feel the same. Creatively, think about what encourages other people to share stories, use a tone of voice that's natural to you, and when someone demonstrates relentless energy towards an idea, give them a chance to explore it. Energy is everything.

After chatting to Dan, Matt helped himself to a banana and Dan had water thrown on him for the camera. We're still not sure why either!

After chatting to Dan, Matt helped himself to a banana and Dan had water thrown on him for the camera. We're still not sure why either!

How much of Innocent’s success do you think comes from the fact it’s a company that was started by a group of friends who genuinely wanted to do good?

I think a load of our success comes from the fact we were friends and we already shared a set of values, one of which in our case was to make something good for you.

If you think about the trust that you have for the people you really like and respect, at least you’re all kind of on the same bus – or however you want to say it.

I don’t want to sound like ‘you can only start a business with your friends’ but if you’re going to start something with other people you should, at the very least, trust and respect them.

There are going to be times that are really tough, as well as fun times, and on those days, you’re going to have to trust the fact that those others are going to be pulling their weight, that they’re going to be coming up with ideas. You don’t want to be sitting there thinking ‘why did I start this thing with these clowns!’

A lot of people we know wonder when they should first start thinking about brand. What do you think?

I guess a little bit of it depends on what you’re making.

If you’re about to put a product like a smoothie, or peanut butter, in front of people, to get people to like it and to give yourself a chance, it’s got to look right and sound right. If it’s just a homemade jar with a stuck on post-it note, or something, it’s probably not going to do that well. It won’t look perfect from the off, but it’s worth having a working version and thinking about the look and feel stuff.

Good brands know why they exist, who they are for, what they are going to say and how they’re going to tell their story.

The reason you start something in the first place is because, hopefully, you think there’s a need for it in the world… whether it’s a deep need that’s going to save the universe or just ‘I want to make slightly better peanut butter than somebody else’.

Having a purpose that you know will guide you towards not only to what you’re making right now, but what you’ll be making in five years. Having a set of values there [on the wall], that’s all part of our brand right? We use it to guide us towards the kind of people we want, the kind of things we want to make. It helps you know where you want to get to.

Our vision is to be the world’s favourite, little, healthy drinks company. Favourite as in everyone loves it. Little as in spirit and attitude. And healthy drinks as in we started off with smoothies and then juice, but now it’s about more than those things, it’s about waters, or plant water, or refreshment more generally, or whatever and however we see the world moving, we’ll go off and make the stuff the people want. 

How often do you find brand values are limited by reality?

Our ambition always outstripped reality - to be super sustainable, ethical, perfectly healthy. I think because we’re ambitious – we shoot for the stars – you have to go for the big thing if you ever hope to escape gravity.

It’s like life, it’s a constant journey of improvement and you might not get everything that you want, but you keep going and then you just have to prioritise.

We’re not perfect, no company is perfect, but we often think ‘right, what are we doing that sucks?’ ’What can we do to get better?’ Ultimately, we’ve always thought in terms of “Leaving things better than how we found them”: it’s our commitment to sustainability.

Leaving things better than how we found them: Innocent's commitment to sustainability.

Leaving things better than how we found them: Innocent's commitment to sustainability.

Talking about brand, what advice would you give to a start-up team looking to ‘find their voice’?

So we didn’t find our voice for a number of years. Or at least we didn’t know we had. We didn’t even know there was such a thing as ‘having a tone of voice’. It’s now a thing – you read a branding book and people talk about whether you should be ‘natural’ or ‘witty’ or ‘serious’ or ‘authoritative’. 

For us it was being the sound of some friends sitting in a room, messing about and writing down stuff that we thought would actually be amusing. Never really thinking that someone else would read it and then tell their friends about it, or pick up on it, or any of that stuff.

My advice would be that it needs to come from the people, in the business. You personally need to be comfortable with it. It shouldn’t go against your personality. It should sound like the noise coming out of that room, or that office… that’s how I define it.

After a few years of doing it, then it’s time to write down what you think it is, but don’t try and define it before you’ve actually had a go at doing it. 

Innocent is very conversational. Very human. And a lot of brands today are trying to be very human. And many try and copy innocent. But, do you think a brand can be too human?

Good question. As a business, I would hate not to be human. Humans have built powers of detection over thousands of years, so we know when someone’s faking it. We can sniff out what’s real and what isn’t real.

The same with the tone of voice of a business. You know if you’re hearing the story of a business which sounds too well crafted, too good to be true, and everything’s wonderful, nothing bad ever happens. Or whether it’s true and really happening. It’s the same as turning up at a party and figuring out who you’re going to hang out with, and you see the guy in the corner who’s just a little bit too switched on, having too much of a good time, or a bit like the class clown who usually tries a bit too hard. Likewise, do you want to be in the corner where nobody’s talking, or saying anything and people are looking despondent? 

I’d want to be somewhere in the middle with real people, having a chat.

Whatever it is and whatever you do, it won’t be for everyone. In the same way that you can’t make friends with and like everyone you meet. If it’s authentic and real, some people will engage with it and some people won’t. It’s better to at least have a point of view, and for some people to not like you, because then you have something which is at least meaningful and has cut through, rather than something which you hope will please everyone. It never will!

It’s well known that not everyone internally loved Innocent’s woolly hats (The Big Knit) at first. How do you know when to protect a creative idea? 

The example of the big knit hats is one we return to quite a lot. It is our longest running marketing campaign. Arguably our most successful. If it didn’t work we wouldn’t do it anymore. It works in different cultures, different languages... it seems everyone likes seeing little hats on bottles (laughs). And yes, you are right, that idea was dreamed up by a chap who worked here, called Adam, who had gone away to think about ‘I’m going to have this big idea that’s going to change the way we do marketing this year.’ He came back and told us about it and we all thought he was an idiot! But he proved it worked. It’s still here and it’s great. 

How did I know at that time if that idea would work? Answer is, I didn’t, I thought it was rubbish. And I’ve been proven to be massively wrong. Since then I’ve seen lots more ideas, and had a few of my own, and I’ve learned to be a bit better at judging what might work. But you never really know. 

In no way could I 100%, or even 85%, predict what works simply by someone putting together an amazing presentation, or someone coming up to me saying ‘hey I’ve got this great idea’.

And it’s not just innocent. I’ve met people who have their own ideas for businesses they want to launch. They say ‘oh, I’ve got this great idea, I’ve got to tell you about it’. And I’ll sit there and think, ‘that’s amazing’. And the business doesn’t work. Or I say ‘that’s rubbish, nobody will buy that’ and it will work brilliantly.

In the end you don’t know.

And I think that is due in a large part to the fact that humans are really odd creatures. Really odd in what we tell people we like and what we actually like. And what we say we’re going to do and what we really do. And so I think it can be quite tricky to figure out what is a good idea that people are going to really respond to and love. No one has a perfect strike rate on that sort of stuff. 

Why did you take the risk on Adam and his woolly hat idea?

Just because Adam was so into it. All of us sat around the table outlining all the logical problems as to why it wasn’t going to work, and he ultimately said ‘I hear you, but I don’t agree with you’ . He did a really simple test where, for a week, one café had hats on bottles, and another café had none – you know, in the same area, with similar people coming in and out. And he just showed us a simple chart at the end of that week and said ‘look, the café with hats on sold more drinks!’ And it wasn’t that we thought that was incontrovertible data. It was more like, ‘oh man, he really wants to do this’ and he’s got that energy and that’s probably worth more than the idea. He wants to make something work. Rather than just do it because he’sanalysed it. Human energy and willpower defeats most things. 

How do you think entrepreneurs can build their brands with very little money?

For me it comes down to the really undeniable truth that your customers will be humans – they will be real people who like real things and who remember stories, and I think you’ve got a better chance if your story is as interesting and compelling. Whether it’s a story around the product, a story about why you started the business, your personal story about why you’re doing this thing in the first place.

That’s how we got by in the first 2 or 3 years of our business, by just being boring and by keeping on telling that story. You have to realise that there’s no way everyone has heard it – not in year one. They don’t know who you are, what you do and why you do it.

Even though you’re bored of telling that story, through every channel you can find that’s free, social media, PR or whatever, you need to keep telling that story and you need to, as a founder, keep improving in terms of how you can keep telling that story. Add to it. Build on it.

In the end, all you want is people to go off and tell that story for you. To go to their mates and go ‘oh, I’ve just seen this thing, have you seen this thing?’ That’s the goal.

So, have a think about the things you’ve   told your friends about in the past and then take a step back and work out why you told them that. You may find a simple clue right there.

Of course, it sounds super simple – “tell stories”– but it’s really hard. It’s where you quite quickly find out – I think – whether it’s going to work or not. 

And, finally, is Innocent’s brand proposition about product or people?

I do believe, that given a bit of time, we could do anything. It might sound a bit arrogant, but we have enough people now – you know, we have 400/500 people working for innocent all over Europe. I think if we got them all together and said ‘right, drinks are boring, we’re not going to make any more drinks. Let’s… make electricity’, I think we could then go and build an electricity company, using power from renewable sources, market it and sell it to people. It would be a radical shift. It would be very risky. People would think we’re stupid. We’re definitely not going to do that, but we could. You have to think that – you have to believe in yourself, and in your teams and your people.

I think that you can always apply values, vision and purpose to a different sort of business. Our values and our purpose are grounded in some very simple human truths. And although our vision talks about ‘drinks’, you could apply it to other things. If you’ve got a smart enough bunch of people. If you had met us 18 years ago, you’d have definitely questioned whether we could start a juice business that would even sell 30 bottles a day, so… having experienced that, my attitude it that most things can be done given the right people and the right doe of willpower.


Say hello to Dan on Twitter: @dangermain
Or have a chat with Innocent: @innocent

Matt & Katarina