Close-Up: Newsmaker - Innocent's marketing chief puts advertising last

You need to get the product offering right first, Richard Reed tells Rachel Gardner. Take three university friends with an idea for a new product, no experience of running a business and very little financial backing. It hardly reads like a recipe for success.

But against the odds, a mere five years from launch, Innocent Drinks has been transformed from a small West London juice company into a national brand, carving a profitable niche for itself by selling 100 per cent natural smoothies.

Richard Reed, the co-founder and marketing director of Innocent, admits the company's approach is unconventional. Take its workspace, Fruit Towers, a unit near London's Goldhawk Road, carpeted with fake grass, scattered with bean bags and with three entrances for "people", "cows" and "burglars".

Along with a pair of marketing consultants, Adam Balon and Jon Wright, he pioneered what in 1999 was a relatively new concept: a drink blended from fruit and fresh juices and nothing else.

They started out by conducting several months of intensive taste-testing on friends and colleagues after being given the use of office space at Reed's then employer, BMP DDB.

The smoothies were later unleashed on a small jazz festival in London, where tasters were asked to dump their bottles in a "yes" or "no" bin to determine whether the trio should continue to pursue their venture.

The result of the poll led the three Cambridge friends to quit their day jobs, Reed leaving BMP after a four-year spell as an account man.

It took nine months for the Innocent product to hit the shelves, and when it did on 28 April 1999, in a local sandwich shop, the sale for the first day was a paltry 24 bottles.

That number has risen to 38,000 in 2004, making Innocent the biggest smoothie brand in the UK, experiencing year-on-year growth of 91 per cent in 2003.

According to the latest figures from Nielsen Media Research, the company now commands around 25 per cent of the smoothie and yoghurt drinks market.

Indeed, walk into almost any of the major high-street supermarkets and you will find Innocent drinks on the shelves.

Tesco recently added its name to the other heavyweights, such as Asda and Waitrose, among the 3,000 outlets selling the brand.

"I think we're punching slightly above our weight in terms of brand awareness and the relationship we have with the people who buy our drinks," Reed says.

Despite the statistics, the 31-year-old Reed refuses to see himself as the leader of a big business.

He has an infectious energy and passion. At several points during the interview - which he opts to conduct outside and standing up - he rubs his hands together and bounces up and down in his sandals.

His responses to questions he had undoubtedly answered numerous times before are delivered at 100 miles per hour. But he manages to make the words sound fresh and heartfelt.

Although Reed has a natural interest in advertising - he admits he used to memorise the scripts for Pepsi ads as a child - he does not believe it was necessarily central to the success of the brand.

He says: "My attitude towards advertising is that, when you're a new business, do it last, because what you have got to do is to get the product right, get the foundations, build a great team and get a really strong brand. Advertising will then magnify what's already there."

Reed has employed a broad range of marketing strategies to great effect for Innocent. At the heart of it all is the brand image of fun entrepreneurialism in everything from packaging through to the website.

The Innocent "dancing grass" vans, adorned with astro-turf and daisies, and which "moo" on request, provide an eye-catching presence on the capital's streets while furthering the company's sampling programme.

The company's slightly more conformist advertising, which is currently focused on the Tube and outdoor, was created by Fallon's Andy McLeod and Richard Flintham, friends of Reed from his time at BMP, and with whom he has kept in close touch.

In keeping with Innocent's ethos, the simple creative highlights the made-by-nature aspect of the product, using straplines such as "Innocent smoothies from the makers of trees and stuff" and "If you've enjoyed your smoothie, why not try our other products like sand, rainbows or perhaps plankton".

Until now, the drinks have only been publicised in three cities - London, Leeds and Glasgow - on a limited budget.

Indeed, Fallon's payment for its efforts over the years has been a regular fridge-full of smoothies as opposed to the usual hard cash.

This year, however, that could change, because the company has plans to roll out a £2.5 million national campaign and to promote Innocent on TV.

It is a far cry from the early days, when Reed admits he was frequently consumed with the fear that they wouldn't get the business off the ground.

Jorian Murray, the managing director of DDB, worked closely with Reed for two years, first as an account handler and latterly as an account executive on Volkswagen.

He was one of those to show unqualified faith in him. "Richard is just fantastic. I want my son to become Richard Reed," he enthuses.

"He's charming and he delivers on what he says he's going to deliver on. He never gives up, but in a very charming way. And, when he asks questions, you just want to help him. There are lots of people in creative jobs at agencies with great ideas, but the difference with Richard is he went out and did it."

Reed, who along with running Innocent, sits on the Small Business Council, advising the Government on matters concerning entrepreneurship, concedes that his time at DDB equipped him with some invaluable skills, most notably, how to write a business plan, which he likens to doing a pitch.

He says: "Being in advertising teaches you the importance of making your whole business focused on the consumer, on the people who will buy your products and services."

It is this attitude and prudence that has helped guide Innocent to a clutch of business awards in recent years, including The Orange Small Business of the Year, and the Growing Business Award for the Most Promising New Company.

But behind all the accolades and success is a genuine desire to do good through the company's work. Reed says: "I don't want to sound like some weird hippy guy, but we take a certain amount of pride in what we're doing.

Our objective is to make sure the business continues to work financially, but when we're all sat in nursing homes, we need to be proud of the decisions we made."

Despite his warmth, charm and good looks, the Yorkshire-born businessman has a reputation for being a tough cookie in a deal, where his philosophy is "negotiate, negotiate, negotiate".

The nursing home may be a way off, but what is his long-term vision for Innocent?

"I've got a little plan," he admits. "Which is to become Europe's favourite little juice company.

"I guess I'm a dreamer. With Innocent being about things that do you some good, I get excited about Innocent baby food, body care or holidays. Who knows?"

Dreamer or not, it's difficult not to believe in him.

QUESTIONNAIRE

Age: 31

Lives: Shepherds Bush

Family: Sisters, Kate and Charlotte; mum, Bridget; dad, David

Favourite ad: The Guardian "points of view"

Describe yourself in three words: Passionate, nature-loving,

entrepreneur

Greatest extravagance: My girlfriend's engagement ring

Most admired agency: Good Business

Living person you most admire: My mum

One to watch: Jason Goodman at Albion

Motto: Live fast, die old

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1 Job description: Digital marketing executive

Digital marketing executives oversee the online marketing strategy for their organisation. They plan and execute digital (including email) marketing campaigns and design, maintain and supply content for the organisation's website(s).