Paul Burke

Why I regret inventing the innocent smoothie brand

Why I regret inventing the innocent smoothie brand
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We all have secrets which, when we remember them, shroud us in shame. I’m afraid I have a particularly dark one that I’m forced to remember almost every day of my life.

Twenty years ago, I was a working in a big London ad agency with a smart and ambitious young man named Richard Reed. I liked him a lot and it was clear that he wouldn’t be constrained by the advertising industry forever. Sure enough, he came to me one day and announced that he and some friends were starting a business, making fruit smoothies called ‘Fast Tractor’. Richard explained that they’d chosen Fast Tractor because the tractor that transported the fruit from field to fruit crusher was fast. Or something. I wasn’t keen on the name and our conversation turned to the smoothies themselves. Unlike Sunny Delight, I said, which was cynically loaded with additives, smoothies were 100 per cent fruit, which made them kind of innocent. Richard looked at me. “Innocent”, he said, “That’s a much better name, isn’t it?” I agreed but said that the one additive it needed was a unique tone of voice, so I set about creating one.

I’d always liked the surreal copy on the labels of Paul Newman’s salad dressings. I’d also recently written some radio commercials for Optrex voiced by The National Theatre of Brent. One half of this comedy duo was Jim Broadbent whose character, Wallace, was a gentle, wide-eyed innocent who just told the truth as he saw it. And so, inspired by two Oscar-winning stars, I devised the Innocent tone of voice – that of a naïve and affable ingénue, extolling the freshness and purity of their smoothies.

First I wrote the copy for the labels and then, when Innocent staged a music festival on Parsons Green called Fruitstock, I hosted it and introduced all the bands. I’d set the template so once Innocent took off, Richard was able to take the copywriting “in house”. Fine. I’d helped him establish his business and was proud of what I’d done.

But in the years that followed, that pride turned to horror as Innocent “developed” my innovation. Its tone became twee, cloying and creepy. I remember physically recoiling when, on the base of one Innocent carton, it said “Stop looking at my bottom”. No, no, no! It wasn’t supposed to be like this. And then, as if to torture me for what I’d started, the “Innocent” tone of voice spawned hundreds of excruciating imitators. Guardian journalist Rebecca Nicholson named this phenomenon ‘wackaging’: companies desecrating their packaging with infantile, self-regarding piffle.

It followed me everywhere: Mass-produced milkshakes telling me to “Get in, fella!” and smug middle-class muesli saying “I like it in the cupboard”. Oh, how I longed to find the cretin who wrote that and take him at his word.

Interestingly, the two places I could always take refuge were Lidl and Aldi. Cheaper food has litte time for wackaging. But walk Whole Foods or Planet Organic and practically every one of their expensive and “ethical” comestibles are smothering you with cutesy, insincere entreaties to get you to part with your cash.

Inevitably, the dull established brands weighed in, pretending that they too were zany, matey and nice. Barclays re-named their cash machines “Hole in the Wall” and puerile TV commercials for the Halifax featured Top Cat and Fred Flintstone applying for mortgages. I do wonder just how matey they’d be if you failed to keep up your repayments. Worst of all was a water company whose envelopes encircled the customer’s name with “That’s me. Guess it’s a bill”. All of these huge institutions failed to realise that you can never combine the licence of friendship with the authority of command.

My original sin seems to infect every part of my life. I’m mortally embarrassed every time I hear a BBC continuity announcer trying too hard to be informal or ironic. When I went on The Moral Maze on Radio 4, and professional trendy vicar Giles Fraser addressed me as “mate”, I thought I’ve only got myself to blame.

I began to feel like Victor Gruen, the Austrian architect who designed the world’s first shopping mall. He died a broken man, horrified by what others had done to his invention. My sole consolation was that very few people knew that I’d set this repulsive trend in motion. “We had space on our labels that we had to fill with something”claimed Innocent’s Lucie Bright, “It wasn’t a conscious decision designed to differentiate us from anyone else.” Very kind of you to say that, Lucie, but it was a conscious decision. I should know, I made that decision.

But I’ve now realised that my only route to redemption is a full and liberating confession. Because despite initiating Innocent, I am irrefutably guilty.