Mark Ritson on Branding: In bed with McD's but still Innocent

McDonald's has just begun a six-month trial offering Innocent drinks on its Happy Meals menu at 80 restaurants in the North of England. Not surprisingly, lemons weren't the only things being squeezed at Innocent Towers when the deal was announced. The firm's three enigmatic co-founders have received a brand bollocking from passionate consumers who are enraged by the deal.

If ever there was a place to learn about brand equity, it is the Innocent blog, where it has posted about the trial under the title 'To burger or not to burger' and consumers have posted their responses. All manner of brand loyalties, relationships and emotions are on display, each typed neatly into a paragraph of heartfelt prose. The theory of brand management is not yet precise enough to predict the impact McDonald's will have on Innocent's brand equity. But the laws of branding and the comments on Innocent's blog suggest one of three possible outcomes.

Old-school branding theory predicts disaster. In the 90s, we were totalitarian about brands. Anything inconsistent or contradictory to a brand's positioning would damage and eventually destroy it. Innocent's deal with a brand diametrically opposed to its core associations has stirred the passions of many Innocent consumers. One, Chris, posted that he poured his smoothie down the sink, accusing Innocent of 'sleeping with Satan'. Alison described the news as 'like how you must feel when you thought that you were part of a really happy and cosy family... then you find out that your uncle is a paedophile'. Strong brands, strong emotions.

Brand theory has, however, become more nuanced. Many strong brands are able to build brand equity even if they retail in some incongruous locations. You can buy a fine bottle of Bollinger at Tesco, for example. No damage is done to the Bolly brand because for every non-luxury encounter, it also uses other forms of brand-building distribution, such as fine restaurants, to balance out the apparent anomaly.

Innocent, like Bollinger, is established and has already built its brand. Provided it keeps doing so with smart communications and brand-consistent activity, it can more than counter the effect of being sold in McDonald's. Many Innocent consumers take this viewpoint on the blog. Johnathan, for example, points out: 'It doesn't matter where Innocent smoothies are sold. What matters is that they ARE sold, and that more people have the option of choosing them over a less healthy alternative.'

The best result for Innocent comes from co-branding theory. Experimental research proves that when two brands' products are associated, both brands win. The positive associations and loyal consumers from each brand are transferred to the other. Innocent will become more mainstream and engage with another 5m potential consumers. McDonald's will become fresher, healthier and trustworthier.

Better still, none of the negative associations from either brand are likely to cross over, as co-brand research suggests only positive associations are exchanged. So Innocent won't become tarnished with ecological unsoundness or junk-food associations.

Blog poster Lizzy Smith was 'sure that Innocent will not only be sharing smoothies but the whole package of how they do business... I can only see this as a positive influence for the fast-food giants rather than a negative influence on Innocent.' Steve agreed, claiming that there are already many similarities between McDonald's and Innocent.

Mind you, Steve would. He is the chief executive of McDonald's UK and could not resist adding his own comments to the Innocent blog. Get used to it, Innocent.


- In its blog, Innocent said it agreed to trial its kids' smoothies in McDonald's only after a full company meeting; it felt the chance to 'give kids the opportunity to eat more fruit' was too important to refuse.

- Many consumers responding to the blog thought the tie-up was positive, but others were disappointed and even angry. One, Nigel, warned: 'It will have a massively negative impact on your brand - and let's face it, nobody will believe it's about anything but money, nobody will buy that it's about giving McDonald's kids a healthier drink in their boxes of lard.'

- While Nick agreed that McDonald's has a 'horrible reputation', he added: 'If this leads to less children drinking rubbish, then great.'

- In a follow-up post, Innocent co-founder Richard Reed said: 'We didn't make this decision lightly. We even polled our regular drinkers... 72% said they would actively like us to be in McD's, 17% said they didn't care, and 9% said we shouldn't be there. We wouldn't have done it if the opposite had been true.'