Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Selling out?

One of my favourite (an indeed one of the nation’s favourite) drinks manufacturers have come under fire the last few weeks for making a deal with the devil (well, not the actual devil, just the corporate empire many believe to be in league with Beelzebub). Innocent drinks have agreed to sell their smoothies in McDonald’s Happy Meals for children, and the Innocent drinkers are not happy. “It’s all about money and you won’t be getting any more of mine”, one angry blogger wrote on the Innocent blog. A slight overreaction in my opinion.

Yes, McDonalds may not be (OK are definitely not) the most ethical of companies. However, to give them a little credit, over recent years they have made a real effort to overcome the negative perceptions of consumers and actually be more ethical, working with the likes of Greenpeace and the Rainforest Alliance. And Innocent are only supplying them with some of their drinks, they aren’t selling the company to McDonalds, which is what you might think viewing the hostile reactions of some consumers.

Innocent understandably defended their position on the wake of the backlash. At the end of the first day of the barrage, Richard Ree, one of the three founders, put out a statement on the company’s blog saying that ‘surely it’s better for children to get the chance to drink healthy fruit smoothies than the kind of stuff that is more usually available from McDonald’s.’ Unfortunately this just fuelled the fire for some.

Jamie Mitchell, the managing director of Innocent in the UK did admit that Innocent had been quite naïve in not realising just how negative the reaction would be. However, he does point out that they had consulted with both Greenpeace and the Rainforest Alliance beforehand and made the final decision based on ethics and health. “Our objective is to get kids to have more fruit. We couldn’t just stand outside being angry about it. We want our drinks to reach kids wherever they are – that means schools and family restaurants. So we’re aiming at both of those.”

In addition to various statements, the company bosses also surprised around 30 of the harshest critics on their blog by phoning them up for a conversation. “We might not have convinced them, but at least we’ve reached a point where we know we respect each other’s position.” Not only great damage limitation I reckon, but also an excellent customer feedback strategy.

Obviously I can see the point of view from those with a deadly opposition to Innocent having any association with the likes of McDonald’s. They see it as a small(ish), caring company selling out simply to make big bucks. But those consumers who grew to care so much for the Innocent brand should surely have a little more faith in the brand and look beyond the money aspect of the deal.

I am an Innocent lover. I subscribe to their newsletter, I read their blog sometimes and I consume the smoothies on an almost daily basis. Every time I buy a carton I turn to the bottom to see what little witty saying they have put on and look around the rest of the carton to see if there are any new stories or funny bits that have been added to that particular flavour. Along the way I’ve grown to have a great affection for the company, not just because of their quirky brand personality but also because of their honest, heartfelt ethical stance. And clearly I’m not the only one. Shoot me if you like, but that hasn’t been eroded one bit by their decision to work for McDonald’s. If anything, I possibly have more respect for them, because instead of standing back and shaking their heads at the big, evil corporate empire, when McDonald’s came to ask if they could sell their drinks, they said yes. Why? Because they know that a lot of kids eat there and it’s yet another way to introduce them to healthy food in an otherwise unhealthy environment. I’m pretty sure that doesn’t mean that Innocent agree with everything McDonald’s stands for and doesn’t mean that they won’t make money out of the deal either, it simply means that they weren’t too scared to do something they knew may be unpopular. Because they thought it was the right thing to do.

At the moment this is only a regional pilot scheme and I suppose time will tell how successful it will be for both companies. Innocent certainly have more to lose than McDonald’s in the scenario. I don’t think it will deal a deadly blow in the long run however. It is debateable whether McDonald’s are supplying the drinks for the ‘right’ reasons. It may be the case that they are merely making a/another token gesture to appear to care more about the health of their customers while riding on the coattails of Innocents success and great reputation. But maybe, just maybe, they do care. Either way, I’ve got no doubt that Innocent has done the deal for the right reasons. Perhaps I’ve been blinded by my brand loyalty, but to me that can only mean that Innocent is doing their job right.



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