Marketing Green & Black's: Organic plus luxury adds up to the taste of success

Easter means chocolate, and for ever-growing numbers of consumers, chocolate means Green & Black's. Ian Burrell reports on one of the greatest marketing triumphs of recent years
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The Independent Online

But who are we to argue with the strategy of Green & Black's, a brand that has risen almost from nowhere to become the treat of choice on the office tea run. That the organic, cocoa-rich chocolate brand should take out print advertising at all is unusual. More often it spreads its name by giving away free samples. The result has been the marketing success story of recent times.

Mark Palmer, the company's marketing director, says: "From day one this brand has been about that combination of ethical and luxury all in one."

It is true that Green & Black's has skilfully ridden two horses, enabling it to be stocked by Harrods and Selfridges (gourmet, luxury) on the one hand and by health food shops (organic, fair trade) on the other.

Green & Black's might be a name that conjures imagery of a traditional confectioner steeped in heritage, but the reality is different. The company was founded in 1991 by the journalist Josephine Fairley and her partner Craig Sams, an organic foods specialist, who were inspired by the taste of the cocoa they savoured on a holiday in Belize. Fairley was a chocoholic who had repeatedly returned from assignments abroad to complain that the dark chocolate she found in other countries was not readily available in the UK.

After deciding to make their own chocolate, the couple chose the name Green to represent the organic nature of the product and Black for the 70 per cent cocoa solids it would contain.

Palmer's mission has been to move beyond niche outlets and expose the brand to the wider public. When he joined the company, five years ago, it was already turning over £2.5m, and was stocked by the large supermarkets, albeit in the organic aisles. But the potential of the brand was not being realised, he says. "We talked to people who were regular chocolate buyers and we found that hardly anybody had even heard of it and many of those that had were intimidated by it. They felt it was really worthy."

The market research found that some were reluctant even to put it in their mouths. "It's not normally difficult to get people to try chocolate but it was in this instance," says Palmer. "It confirmed my feelings that we had a great product that we were presenting in the wrong way, saying that unless you are signed up to the green brigade this is not for you."

Green & Black's made a strategic decision that rather than "dominate" the organic chocolate market (of which it already had about 95 per cent share), it would "compete as a chocolate in our own right, using organic as one of the things that sets us apart". For the past four years, Palmer has based the company's marketing strategy around getting people to taste the chocolate. He says: "We felt that advertising, at that moment in the brand's life, had severe limitations. Giving people the chance to taste the brand is far more powerful than any other form of advertising."

So Green & Black's chose to tie up with a succession of influential food titles, offering a bar of chocolate as a cover mount. "The first was The Observer Food Monthly, which we felt was an authority on food trends. They had never before included a food sample in their publication. It was a tremendous endorsement for us."

The strategy has continued. Last month, samples of the new butterscotch flavour were attached to copies of Good Housekeeping. Readers of the Classic FM Magazine (on whose radio station Green & Black's has taken out some rare advertising spots) were also offered free chocolate, as were those who bought Glamour, which ran an advertorial on the celebrity interest in the ethical chocolate brand.

Perhaps most importantly of all, free chocolate has been distributed with Sainsbury's Magazine and Waitrose Food Illustrated, which raises the profile of the brand at the check-out tills.

This chocolate giveaway was accompanied by a decision to ditch the old packaging of the chocolate bars, which was laden with facts on ingredients. "It didn't look luxurious and there was too much information. We needed a cleaner and bolder look," says Palmer. "We changed the emphasis so that we had taste first, with all the brands in deep colours." The next challenge was to make the chocolate more available in stores.

However, the rise of the Green & Black's brand has not been entirely smooth. Its reputation has had to cope with the fact that since May 2005 the company has been owned by the giant food conglomerate Cadbury Schweppes. So great has been the disquiet among Green & Black's customer base that William Kendall, the chief executive, has felt obliged to post a notice on the company website to appease the discontent. Kendall argues that Cadbury was checked out "pretty thoroughly" and scores highly on ethical issues. "We do not have time for prejudice at Green & Black's and this includes a prejudice that all big companies and the people who work for them are bad," he says.

The Green & Black's revolution will carry on as before, says Palmer. "This is a brand with depth and roots."

Mark Palmer will address the Marketing Society conference, The Power of Brands, on 21 November in London