c19 March 2015


Narda Shirley

One of the defining characteristics of challenger brand start-ups in the food industry is that they are unencumbered by legacy. They can source from where they like and the entrepreneurs behind the brands can lay down any number of guiding principles that give their brand a feel good factor that helps it stand out. Whether it’s good for the environment, good for producers, good for you, or a combination of all three.

‘Doing the right thing’ and ‘making a difference’ are often cited by entrepreneurs as their driving motivation for the hard graft of getting a new business off the ground. So it’s vital that they weave that ethos into the brand communication, making their values part of their business DNA.

But what happens to these small companies when they grow? How hard is it to maintain an ethical stance that is pragmatic and profitable at scale? Is the cycle of growth and sale to a larger, deeper pocketed company in part about being able to afford to stay true to your founding values? Or is there always a compromise once the entrepreneur cedes control to a bigger corporation?

We took a cursory peek at 3 British brands that have sold out – in each case ending up in the hands of US corporations.

Husband and wife team Craig Sams and Jo Fairley launched Green & Black’s in 1991, the first Fairtrade chocolate in the UK, sourcing directly from farmers in Togo and Belize who were rewarded with higher prices for using environmentally sustainable practices. Green & Black’s worked with William Kendall’s then private equity firm, Nemadi which engineered a sale to Cadbury in 2005 (which in turn was acquired by Kraft in 2010). An interview with Fairley in 2013 revealed that Green & Black’s Head of Sustainability went on to do the same much larger job at parent brand Mondelez. Fairley also cites Green & Black’s influence as the reason Cadbury first went Fairtrade with Dairy Milk setting off a domino effect that also saw KitKat and others follow suit. So it would seem in this case, that an early adopter challenger brand became a Trojan Horse change agent inside the major brand that acquired it.

Pret a Manger hit on a successful formula based on principles of product freshness, avoiding additives. Pret also started its own foundation to help feed the homeless. In 2001 McDonald’s bought a third of the business, which was later sold to private equity firm, Bridgepoint. In the meantime, McDonalds has successfully turned its own brand credentials around in terms of building a reputation among consumers of having an ethical supply chain. But back then, the perceived differences in values perhaps helped prompt this quote from Pret that “McDonald’s has never had any day-to-day role in Pret, nor has it had any say over what we do, nor how we do it.” (NB. Julian Metcalfe, one of Pret’s original founders went on to open Itsu. Proof perhaps that there’s a certain type of entrepreneur for whom once is not enough).
Paul Lindley founded Ella’s Kitchen, the UK’s bestselling baby food company, without a shred of retail or food industry experience. He did however have a background in media and children’s brands from Nickelodeon. He is quoted as saying “What has always driven me is the idea that business has a responsibility to be good for society.” Founded in 2006, Mr Lindley sold to US food company Hain Celestial for $103.5m last year. Hain’s main website offers up a slightly dated CSR Report from 2012, but it is front and centre on the home page which at least demonstrates the emphasis the company puts on its sustainability credentials.

In each of these situations, the challenger brand has led with its values and sustainability message. As an entrepreneur growing your own business, you get to decide what you stand for, and how you communicate it, without having to justify it to analysts or shareholders. It’s heartening to think that brand values that were once perhaps viewed by the city as a potentially costly indulgence by entrepreneurs are now increasingly priced in at a premium when it comes to a sale.