If you’ve ever launched a new product on the market, you must know that this can be a very daunting task. You’ve created a new product concept, a name, and thought of a pricing and distribution strategy. And now, you need to make sure that your product is actually bought, and that you begin to turn a profit.How to get your product launch right?
This question goes through the minds of startup entrepreneurs as well as seasoned marketing managers working for big multinationals. In either case, they need to get a myriad of things working in their favor in order to launch a previously unknown product, and begin to develop its brand right from the start.
It often feels like trying to put the pieces of a puzzle together, without knowing what the puzzle should look like.
Today, my interviewee is Craig Sams. Originally from the US, Craig moved to the UK in 1966 after graduating from Wharton Business School. Together with his brother Greg, he opened a macrobiotic restaurant called Seed in London in 1968. His further businesses included a popular brand of organic products called Whole Earth, and later on, Green & Black’s, a brand of ethical chocolate, which has an almost iconic status amongst chocolate connoisseurs. Our main focus today will be on Green & Black’s.
After successfully selling Green & Black’s to Cadbury (subsequently bought by Kraft), Craig is now running an innovative biochar growing products business called Carbon Gold. Together with his wife Josephine Fairley, with whom he co-founded Green & Black’s in 1991, he is still involved in some high-level work overviewing the development of the brand alongside the marketing team at Kraft.
Olga: Craig, when you and your wife Josephine had the idea of launching an organic brand of chocolate back in 1991, was “organic” already a big word on the landscape of food brands?
Craig: By the time that we launched Green & Black’s, there were actually already many organic brands out there, including our own brand, called Whole Earth.
We understood organic certification very well, and we were well plugged into the organic network. Back in 1991, it was still a small network, but our advantage was that we knew it inside out. Which means that, in theory, we had relatively easy access to distribution channels, which are crucial for building a strong brand, especially in the food industry.
Olga: And in practice? Was it challenging to convince distributors to take on a previously unknown product brand?
Craig:Pretty much all of the organic and ethical products in the early nineties (whereby “organic” also meant “ethical” in terms of brand positioning) didn’t contain any sugar. And here we were, launching an organic brand of chocolate, containing 30% of sugar. It was a pretty daring step to take, and we expected a lot of negative reactions on the market. Our distributors who sold Whole Earth products, none of which contained any sugar, were doubtful that our new chocolate brand, containing sugar, would take off. At the beginning, it took us some time to convince them that the product would be successful.
Olga: How exactly did you convince your distributors to stock Green and Black’s chocolate on their shelves?
Craig:Our solution was simply to be open and honest to the final consumer. Yes, we acknowledged that our product contained sugar. We also acknowledged that sugar was not good for your health. We even printed a warning statement on all of the packaging at the beginning, which said, “This product contains sugar, which is associated with dental decay, obesity and obesity related illness. Enjoy good chocolate and keep your sugar consumption as low as possible by always choosing , the chocolate with the highest cocoa solids and the lowest sugar content.”
Chocolate is a guilty pleasure but ours was less guilty. Our consumers picked up this message very fast, and as a consequence, our distributors started to become more and more convinced that our product would be very popular.
Olga: How did you choose the name Green & Black’s? What were the aspects that you considered important while giving this name to your chocolate?
Craig:Since we had already developed a strong brand, Whole Earth, we were considering launching our ethical chocolate brand as part of the existing product portfolio, under the same name. But there was an important aspect to keep in mind -- “Whole Earth” was not easy to pronounce, especially on the phone, while talking to potential distributors. Imagine talking to someone in Japan, and saying, “I represent Whole Earth chocolate.” This would not have worked very well! So, our experience working internationally at Whole Earth taught us a good lesson: give your product a name that can be pronounced in any language. Provided of course that you think big and want to build an international business.
And then, Josephine and I were writing down all kinds of names, trying to express organic goodness. There was a lot of biochoc, naturchoc, and the like. But we wanted something that sounded like it had been out there for a long time. Many companies in the past were named after their founders, so we wanted to play with a similar idea, that “Green” and “Black” were last names. But of course, “Green” stands for natural, organic, and “Black” said this was the darkest chocolate that had even been on the market. Before our 70% chocolate the highest level of cocoa solids was 49% and most was 34%. In any case, the name proved to be quite memorable early on.
Olga: It looks like the initial launch of Green & Black’s was quite successful. At which point did you understand that you needed to attract additional investment?
Craig:If you are serious about building a big international brand, then you will for sure need to make significant investments into your brand and marketing strategy, and its implementation. There’s simply no way of building a world-renowned brand with no investment, so you have to think big.
And in return for investment, you have to be prepared to give away part of your company - that’s just the way it works. We were lucky to work with a very good group of investors to whom we sold the majority of our shares, and in return, they invested heavily in the brand development of Green & Black’s. Subsequently, Cadbury bought the brand, and invested even more. And later on, Cadbury was acquired by Kraft, which is doing a very good job managing and growing the brand of Green & Black’s.
Olga: If we go back to the early times again, at what point did you think that the brand was becoming well-known? When did Green & Black’s become famous?
Craig:It happened not long after we launched, in 1993, when the Fairtrade Foundation came to us asking for collaboration. As it turns out, they had a lot of trouble finding good companies which followed the principles of fair trade. And we, with our fair trade production first in Togo and then in Belize, did exactly that.
So, naturally, Green and Black’s became one of the important carriers of the Fairtrade label. In practice, this meant that the Fairtrrade Foundation treated us as their good example, and we got a lot of support and good publicity from them. With the help of the Foundation, we got on TV, received massive press coverage, and had direct access to events and trade fairs they organized. This was a true partnership which played a very important role in Green & Black’s becoming a famous brand.Olga: Did it take you long before you expanded your product portfolio from chocolate into ice cream and other products?
Craig:Ice cream came pretty quickly. It was a result of our participation in the Hampton Court Flower Show, where we had a stall selling chocolate. It was really hot that day, and people came to our stall asking for ice cream. So, we decided to listen to our customers, and launched chocolate ice cream shortly thereafter. It had a lot of success. We had only chocolate flavors at first, but when it comes to ice cream, where there’s chocolate, there should also be vanilla, so the vanilla flavor was launched as well.
Olga Slavkina: Can Green and Black’s be considered a premium brand?
Craig:Yes, it has premium brand positioning. It’s a simple luxury -- a product that anyone can afford once in a while, and something that provides you with an instant infusion of luxury. Green & Black’s is all about glamour. It received some good coverage in the glossy magazine Glamour, in the context of fashion, celebrities and luxury, in line with its brand positioning. It’s also been the top food brand every year in the UK’s list of Cool Brands for 7 consecutive years.
Olga: If you look back at the different ventures you’ve launched throughout your entrepreneurial career, what has been the most successful, and the most rewarding one?
Craig:Without any hesitation, I would mention launching the brand of Whole Earth, and then launching Green & Black’s. If we talk specifically about Green & Black’s, I would mention our work on the product called Maya Gold, our first product to be awarded the Fairtrade Mark in 1994.
Olga: Thank you very much for sharing your story, and I wish you continued success in the future.