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How Innocent is getting back to its roots with soil-inspired campaign

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By Amy Houston, Senior Reporter

March 8, 2024 | 8 min read

The smoothie brand’s chief marketing officer, Kirsty Hunter, and executive creative director, Carol Feeley, explain how it took commuters underground to highlight the importance of fertile soil.

Innocent ad on the London Underground

Innocent's London Underground ad / Innocent

When media organization Global announced the theme of its most recent ‘Look Ahead’ contest with Contagious, the team at Innocent Drinks knew it was a brief the could really run with.

You see, the brief this year was to create digital ads for passengers of the London tube and take them on an alternative ‘underground’ experience, with two weeks of ad space across the Transport for London network up for grabs for the winner.

For Innocent’s marketers, ‘underground’ could mean only one thing: soil. (Makes sense for a company built on fruit and veg, right?) Tapping into its Farmer Innovation Fund, which is making £1m available to its suppliers for regenerative agriculture projects, its ‘Look Ahead’ entry was designed to help strengthen the connection between Innocent’s drinkers and growers while raising awareness of the importance of soil.

Of the 40 entries into the ad competition, Innocent was the only in-house agency to be shortlisted and chief marketing officer Kirsty Hunter says the win came at the perfect time as the team had just come to the end of a strategy cycle and was in need of a reset. “We took a bit of a back step and said, ‘Right, let’s look at our purpose, ambition and strategy,’” she explains.

“We realized that why we entered this world as a brand 23 years ago is still as relevant today. The founders brought Innocent into the market to offer a natural, healthy alternative, but also so they could do business in a way that was conscious of the impact it had on the environment and people.”

Innocent was a “trailblazing” business at that point, she says, and the challenge for her and her team nowadays is to be clear about what they stand for and make sure that is said in a way that is relevant to today’s consumers. It was a case of stripping a lot of unnecessary facets of the business back and getting back to its roots again.

One stat that sparked this whole thought process was that only 12% of European people get an adequate amount of fruit and veg a day. “So we tightened up what our purpose was,” says Hunter, “rather than fundamentally change what we’re about, and that’s about making it easier to enjoy the delicious goodness of fruit and veg.”

That newly defined purpose led Innocent’s in-house creative team to its winning idea of going deep down into the soil, says Carol Feeley, the executive creative director for the brand. “We thought, ‘Why don’t we literally take people on a journey underground?’ We had a bit of a play on that.

“We had an initial collaboration session with the whole of the central marketing team and generated over 30 ideas. There was a real mix in there; there was a roller coaster simulation, a Stranger Things kind of upside-down world, but we landed on quite a specific idea around soil and underground.”

Soil on a billboard

The fun execution takes people on a journey as they travel down the escalator, transporting them underground among the roots and dirt. Feeley says that what they are often good at as a team is taking things that, on the surface, might not seem so interesting and then making them intriguing.

“I think that’s one of the reasons why we won. We know that if we’re going to win competitions, we need ideas that are disruptive and bold. We were up against some fantastic agencies and brands who submitted some really good ideas.” Canon (TMW Unlimited), McCain (We Are Social), NHS Blood & Transplant (Havas London), Prince’s Trust (TMW Unlimited), Refugease (Havas London) and The Natural History Museum (Nomad).

Innocent famously has an in-house creative agency, and as well as any cost-saving positives that might have, Feeley says the value you get with an internal team goes far beyond that. “You get experts in the brand. And if you’ve got a motivated and engaged in-house team who are great at listening and observing, they’re going to spot things that happen across the business and find those extra problems to solve.”

At the moment, the team consists of around 20 people and last year, it brought on a strategist, which Feeley says has been game-changing.

An ad on the Elizabeth line

The ‘Look Ahead’ contest win comes as Innocent unveils a staggering ambition to get a billion more portions of fruit and veg to people across Europe. Hunter says it hopes to do that through its products but also by creating engaging and relevant experiences for its customers.

Innocent was one of the original brands to capitalize on speaking to its customers like real people. Initially, that was through email marketing but it has since grown across its social media channels, including X and Instagram. For example, its current X bio reads: “We make healthy drinks. Please buy them so we don’t get fired.”

Hunter remembers when she used to work on the Scottish beer brand Tennent’s and would look at Innocent for social media inspiration; it had an authenticity that people vibed with, she says. But in an over-saturated digital world, Innocent is having to move with the times if it wants to engage Gen Z and beyond.

It is doing that through influencers (exactly who it is working with is under wraps right now) as well as by being accessible on the right platforms, but not in a contrived way. “These are things that we’re just starting to explore,” adds Hunter. “We’re testing stuff out, like lots of other brands, to see what works and what doesn’t. We’re in a learning space.”

Innocent is also taking notice of the fact younger people are more in tune with their health and wellbeing and that gut health and protein intake are seen as important. “That’s an area that we’re interested to build on from a product development point of view,” says Hunter.

Of course, consumers these days are also much more switched on to greenwashing and touting false sustainability claims. In 2013, Innocent was fully bought over by Coca-Cola – a move that raised a few eyebrows at the time – but it remains a B Corp-certified business to this day, which is something Hunter is proud of. She says that, as a business, it is extremely cautious about getting this right, knowing that if it doesn’t, many employees will voice their concerns.

“That can be very joyful but sometimes it can be quite challenging. But it’s part of the DNA; it’s what makes the brand what it is and is why people come to work here.”

For 2024, Hunter says Innocent has “significantly increased” its marketing investment following what she says were a “tough“ few years, where there have been some “tough calls” to make to ensure its products continue to be accessible for all.

Hunter and Feeley sum up Innocent’s creative approach as “human, playful and unexpected,” with Hunter adding that if the brand can hit all those pillars, it is usually on to a winner. “Everything we do should always have an intelligence behind it. That’s when we’re nailing it. If you’ve got intelligent work that still has that playful element, that’s what makes Innocent as a brand.”

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