by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

Coca-Cola intends to buy between 10 and 20% of Innocent, which is the company that all but invented the idea of a "socially conscious, good-for-you fruit smoothie" in the UK.

I think it's a deviously brilliant move, but not for the reasons feted in the marketing media.

You'll read a lot about Innocent's branding brilliance...its unconventional marketing is considered ethical because it gives away lots of money, and maintains a cuddly, we're-not-really-in-business-to-sell-stuff-to-you tone in its ads, on its website, and even on its product labels. This is why it has been successful, and now Coke wants to own a piece of it, and perhaps import some of those wise ways back to the Mother Ship in Atlanta.

I've got an alternate history for you to consider:

  • Innocent concocts really fresh, simple, good-tasting drinks that it can legitimately claim are good for you
  • It introduces it to the market not through some creative brand marketing, but rather by giving it away to pretty much anybody who will reach for it with an open hand
  • It builds a reputation on this quality and directness, much like Apple has built its brand on the realities of its products and services
  • Competitive businesses and their marketing departments totally misread these truths -- flipping the proverbial cart before the horse -- and introduce at least a dozen copy-cat branding strategies in the UK...lots and lots of smoothie products that come across as equally cute, cuddly, and at least somewhat ethical
  • Therefore, Innocent can't own a position, to use a typical branding term, or hope to command consumer preference based on its communications, which have mostly become commodified (just as most words and images can be similarly genericized)

What it can own is...wait for it...shelf space!

So forget trying to be the bestest, most cuddly brand communicator; I'd argue that one of Innocent's core growth/survival strategies is to be the only or most visible smoothie on store shelves (and/or available at more locations). Think of how many more units it can move by being a part of the uber-Coke products distribution scheme? 

As a matter of fact, I'd call it a smart branding strategy. I wrote about the idea that distribution is a branding effort far more important than much of the imagery that passes for it -- the channeling of choice, really, versus what amounts to hoping for it -- in some detail in my book, Branding Only Works on Cattle

Coke has actually written the book on this approach, really: for all the blather about choice when it comes to colas, where can consumers actually pick one over the other anyway? Once you get past the grocery store shelves, where the cola companies don't make any money anyway), choice all but disappears; Coke's success (and Pepsi's...and the multitude of competing brands that have failed) is determined by its exclusive or dominant distribution footprint, whether at restaurant fountains, sports stadiums, or whathaveyou.

So the Coke investment makes great sense for Innocent, and the UK smoothie's success will benefit Coca-Cola. It has everything to do with really smart business...

...and nothing to do with branding, charity, or anything so innocent

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