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Building a brand without research

Building a brand without research

8 things I learned from a chocolate magnate

I always enjoy hearing from entrepreneurs who have built successful businesses, especially when they tell stories that I knew little about beforehand.

I heard one such story last week at Insight Intelligence’s Market Research Summit and it got me thinking about the role of market research in a company’s success.

The speaker was Jo Fairley, co-founder of Green & Blacks, the premium chocolate company she launched with her husband, Craig Sams, himself founder of the Whole Earth organic food company.

For those that don’t know it, Green & Black's is a British premium chocolate company, founded in 1991 on an ethical platform of sustainability and championing the virtues of high cocoa content, dark chocolate.

True to its ethos, it became the first chocolate brand to be awarded a free trade mark and has been declared one of the UK’s coolest food brands for 10 years in a row, as voted by Coolbrands.

Green & Blacks sold to Cadbury’s in 2005 and is now a $100m company, offering a range of distinctive, premium chocolate products, now available around the world.

When listening to stories of company growth, I always have a personal interest in how and where research has played a role in helping companies make or support key decisions along the way.

But on this occasion, perhaps surprisingly for a key note talk at a Market Research conference, Jo confessed that throughout the company’s history, they had not used ‘formal’ market research at all.

Initially this statement seemed at odds with the research-led theme of the conference, but on closer examination, there were various other ingredients of the brand’s success which were every bit as important as a concept testing programme or a brand tracker.

Here are 8 factors that contributed to Green & Black’s success in lieu of research and are worthy of consideration by anyone involved in building a business:

  1. Courage – investing your nest egg in a risky new venture requires considerable bravery, but it can also encourage drive, focus and resilience, knowing it has to work. Perhaps having such a single-minded purpose is better than owning masses of data when it comes to galvanising your energies.  
  2. Gut feel – choosing the Green & Black brand name was intuitive. The owners drew on the values of heritage brands like Callard & Bowser and Barker & Dobson, whilst also capturing their organic ethos (Green) and the focus on dark chocolate (Black). No need for focus groups, the name just felt right.
  3. Understanding context – the owners had been involved in ‘Green’ activities previously, giving them a broader understanding of trends in ethical production, sustainability, organic ingredients and free trade. This bigger picture knowledge undoubtedly helped in assessing the potential of their brand.
  4. Passion – but not only did the owners understand the broader context, they also felt strongly about it too, ensuring a passion for what they were doing. Companies often speak about ‘purpose’ these days, but nothing beats having owners who truly believe in the company and what it stands for.
  5. Customer closeness – in the early days of the company, Jo answered customer enquiries herself. She spoke to real live customers and got to understand what they wanted. As a business owner, having customer feedback is critical, whether indirectly via research or better still, via direct interaction.
  6. Storytelling – as an ex journo, Jo knew the power of storytelling and made it a key part of the brand’s DNA. Whether championing its provenance, quality ingredients or free trade mark, Green & Blacks certainly benefited from having an authentic story to differentiate it in customers’ minds.
  7. Collaboration – Green & Black’s packaging is another key part of the success, but stemmed from an enduring, trusting relationship with design agency Pearlfisher who got involved early and came to know the brand intuitively over time, which helped them develop the distinctive packaging that reinforces the brand’s identity.
  8. Serendipity – sometimes, fate plays a hand too. Jo told a story about how the church picked up on Green & Blacks free trade credentials and, unbeknown to the owners, started lobbying supermarket chains to stock the brand. This type of unexpected serendipity can be part of a successful brand, but is more likely to happen if the brand is coming from a clear and authentic position in the first place.

All in all, a fascinating brand story that to my mind provides plenty of food for thought for the market research industry.

For a start, it shows how true insight can come from a range of sources, with market research being just one possible avenue.

But more than that, I think it also illustrates the opportunity for more entrepreneurially-minded researchers to follow Jo’s lead – to take more risks, to integrate more gut-feel, to spend longer thinking about the context, to get even closer to the customer, to become a better storyteller…

And that is starting to sound like an industry I’d be excited to be a part of.


Sean Adams Sean Adams Founder The Seed Bio

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