Why businesses with ‘soul’ are magnetic

The story of Green & Black’s shows that the courage to be different, together with a compelling adventure story, are key ingredients for commercial success 

Josephine Fairley knows how to build a killer brand, and her advice is just as relevant to professionals as entrepreneurs. “Increasingly, people want brands with soul,” says the co-founder of chocolate company Green & Black’s. “Today’s customers are drawn to businesses that go beyond just flogging stuff. They want to buy into brands with stories, which set out to change the world in some way, no matter how big or small. You need a great product that looks fantastic, but your brand ethos counts even more.”

Professional services firms are not exempt from this analysis. Your firm is the brand. If you offer nothing of substance – no values, no story – you won’t attract the right customers or the best staff. Jo reinforces the point: “I spoke to someone from a leading firm of accountants recently who said that when he interviews millennials, they ask all the difficult questions, not him.” In other words, for the new generation of talent, it’s about more than just the money. It’s about your firm’s story and ethos: the elements that combine to create its soul.

Jo’s story of how she created Green & Black’s from just one serendipity moment contains many more interesting lessons. A journalist – latterly a magazine editor – since the age of 19, she was a freelancer “writing about everything from Sumo wrestling to Romanian orphans but focusing particularly on green issues” when she added “entrepreneur” to her CV in 1991. She came across a sample bar of organic dark chocolate on the desk of her husband, Craig Sams, co-founder of Whole Earth Foods. The bar was made from cocoa beans grown organically in Togo.

“I tried a small piece and thought it was the best chocolate I’d ever eaten. Interestingly, it was 70% cocoa, which you couldn’t get in the UK at the time. The highest ration available back then was 55%. I became excited by the idea of launching a chocolate brand but Craig didn’t have the budget or resources at the time so we agreed that I would take it on. I would have to do all the PR and marketing myself, which fitted my journalistic skill set. More importantly, I would also have to finance it.”

Jo had £20k in the bank from selling her first flat. Producing two tonnes of rare, dark chocolate – the minimum run – cost the same. “I gambled my nest egg,” she says. “I remembered buying a postcard in Carnaby Street aged 15 that said something like: ‘If you don’t do it you’ll never know what would have happened if you had done it.’ If I didn’t give it a go, I knew my decision would haunt me and that I would rue the day for not taking a risk. Also, I was confident. Craig had a good reputation in the natural food trade for being an innovator so I felt sure we would soon find a market within that niche. I didn’t imagine it would transition to the mainstream because back then the organic sector was miniscule.”

So how did Jo and Craig manage to turn that single bar of organic dark chocolate into a brand with the power and clout of Green & Black’s, which in 2005 they sold to Cadbury for £20m?

First of all, they broke new ground and thereby created a unique selling point. By going against the perceived wisdom that the British palate would not warm to intensely dark chocolate, their product instantly stood out. “When I went to see supermarket buyers, many told me that British people would never eat chocolate that dark,” says Jo. “We told them they were wrong and their theory had become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Mass-market products had shaped our tastes and the pattern just needed to be broken.”

The high cocoa content wasn’t the only hook. Green & Black’s bars were also the first to carry the Fairtrade Mark. They were organic, too. Both badges were crucial because they tapped into a rapidly growing demand for products with a ‘conscience’. For the first time in history, customers could buy a chocolate bar that felt both ethical and healthy.

And luxurious, too. Green & Black’s name and product design highlighted that it was not only ethical but also classy and upmarket. Jo explains: “We came up with the name together at home one Saturday night. We were ‘Green’ because we were organic and ‘Black’ because we had the darkest chocolate available. I put an ampersand in the middle and thought ‘oh my God – this is a brand’. It was extraordinary. The name sounded like it could have been around since 1876. And we very deliberately made the bars look luxurious but a bit traditional as well. All the eco brands out there at the time had subdued natural colours. We used gold, a ribbon, a seal, the organic logo… the aim was to be much classier than anything else out there.”

The next successful element in the recipe was to create the right kind of PR stir, which is where Jo’s journalistic skills came in. “I wrote a press release and sent it to anyone I could think of, along with some sample bars of chocolate. I contacted people you would now call ‘influencers’ – food writers I knew like Delia Smith, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and restaurateurs such as the owners of The Ivy and The Groucho Club.”

Jo also focused on getting her product into leading influential shops such as The Conran Shop and Villandry Deli, a strategy that would pay dividends. “Because I was a one-man band, I didn’t mind driving to Marylebone High Street from home in Portobello Road and parking on a double yellow and getting £26.06 in cash from [Villandry founder] Jean-Charles Carrarini,” she explains. “I remember saying to Craig at the time: ‘I love business. You buy something for one price and then sell it for another and you get to keep the money in between!’ I was so naïve!”

Naïve or not, Jo’s enthusiasm and targeted PR strategy paid off. “After around six weeks of being in business, I was sitting at my desk and got a call from Sainsbury’s asking us to submit our chocolate for a tasting. I didn’t give it a second thought but Craig was surprised – he’d been in the game for years and knew such interest from a big supermarket in a new product was incredibly unusual. We found out that one of the Sainsbury’s directors had tried Green & Black’s at a friend’s dinner party, and that happened because I’d got the chocolate out there. I’d sent it to the right places.”

Naïvety is no issue when you have huge enthusiasm, a great product and a successful strategy, plus a business partner who is strong in areas where you are less so. “That was the advantage of setting up Green & Black’s with Craig,” says Jo. “We were partners from the word go and have two distinct spheres of expertise. He’s great with strategy, business, cashflow, forecasting – the nuts and bolts. I’m not. But I am good at PR, marketing and customer service. Partnerships can be great, but they require people with distinct areas of expertise. If lots of creatives try to run a business with no accountants, it’ll be a disaster because no one gets invoiced and VAT remains a permanent mystery!”

Whether you are a professional, an entrepreneur or someone with an interest in business, the Green & Black’s story contains many great commercial and life lessons. It demonstrates the effectiveness of complementary partnerships, the power of enthusiasm and the potency of targeted marketing. But for professional services firms, perhaps the most relevant lesson relates to the virtue of uniqueness. As Jo says: “You need to see your product against the competition, in context, on the shelves. Don’t look at your offering in isolation.” This advice holds true for professional firms, too, which operate in a crowd of similar-looking outfits with no clear differentiator. How do you stand out like Green & Black’s did in the early Nineties? What are your equivalents of the Fairtrade badge, the organic logo and that luxurious branding? In other words, what’s compelling about your story? Crack those questions and success will surely follow.