I recently enjoyed reading the rather excellent book ‘Innocent: Building a Brand from Nothing but Fruit’ by John Simmons which offers stunning insight into possibly THE brand phenomenon of the past decade.
The underlying theme throughout the book was how incredibly well the three co-founders had managed to drive the business based on their total and utter belief in the organisations brand values. So rather than a fabricated pretence of what they aspired to be, their natural values have permeated every nook and cranny since day one informing every decision and every action. The end result being a consistent brand experience, be it through communications, behaviour, product or even their environment at Fruit Towers.
I’d like to believe everything in the book I read is true but despite the fluffiness and the niceness you sense that underneath this sugary coating there are some very intelligent and very hard-nosed businessmen playing a game of sorts. All Oxbridge educated you understand, and I suspect some stunning business acumen allowed them to surf the crest of the responsibility wave long before most people had put the letters S, C and R in the right order.
That’s the cynic within me talking anyway. At least they have proved whatever your original motive, you can be nice, be responsible and still make a shed load of money. Good luck to them and it’s got me into their smoothies to be fair.
Questioning brand values
It also got me thinking a bit deeper about ‘brand values’. Ours, theirs, everyone’s really. I questioned our own (do we really live and breathe them?) but then consoled myself with some recent excellent client feedback regarding the Studio North brand experience.
Then my mind wandered back to my dad’s old Italian deli which used to occupy a prime slot in Withington Village for the latter quarter of the 20th century. Here was a business that just simply existed in many ways.
From it’s opening day on 8 December 1970, I’m sure C&G Di Paola had no grand corporate vision, no overwhelming ambition to expand into Didsbury or Fallowfield.
No, not at all. It’s purpose was simple. To serve tasty, fresh continental food to the people of South Manchester that they simply couldn’t get elsewhere.
No complicated set of brand values to abide by and no overly commercial motivation to undermine the whole reason for being. The shop was all about authenticity, having conversation, eating great food, affordability, drinking good wine, being local…just being there, for the people.
Aside from being authentic it was original, it was niche and it surely inspired others. There was always the Barbakan in Chorlton (Polish equivalent still going very strong) and a couple of other delis dotted round the region but back in the day, real delis were rarer than a Man City trophy or a world class Man United signing this transfer window.
Nowadays, the multitude of modern day equivalents fail miserably to replicate the magical formula of rustic charm and continental vibe. Back then, the smell of the coffee grinder, the naff hand-written special offers, the cheese selection, the outdated equipment, the salamis hanging from the ceiling, the Panettone at Xmas. Even the sound of the flies being zapped.
Mamma mia. And my colleagues wonder why I love food so much – I grew up with it!
The old shop was also full of characters, like the little Greek lady Amelia who used to work for my Nonno (Carmine) and Nonna (Luisa) before Papa Gio took the reins. In front of fascinated customers, conversations and ‘heated latin’ arguments were conducted in Napoletana, a dialect somewhat removed from the Italian language.
And the stars flocked there too.
At the height of the Madchester scene my father had no recruitment problems given the local music legends that used to pop in for a nice bottle of Barolo or some Parma Ham.
The Happy Mondays, James, the Mock Turtles. All had the continental munchies. Free tickets for the Hac were also a frequent staple for the lucky shop-girls, thanks to the generosity of Anthony H Wilson and Alan Erasmus.
Denis Law was a regular, so was Ken Barlow and other Corrie stalwarts. Most amusingly now, my dad used to come home (to the annoyance of my mum) raving about how gorgeous Alan Partridge’s future Ukrainian girlfriend was (Steph Barnes in Corrie back then!).
And in the later years even a little Georgian by the name of Kinkladze used to roll up, Ferrari outside.
The ‘Last Don‘
Of course, in time, along came Tesco in Didsbury, Somerfield in the village itself and Sainsburys pretty much cornered the previously buoyant student market in Fallowfield. Local restaurant owners started finding the hidden gems themselves at wholesale prices down the cash and carry, and Tesco’s foreign buyers were out in force making inferior products readily available to a decreasingly discerning audience.
The last don, Giovanni Gennaro Di Paola eventually sold the corner plot to Chinese property investors in 1996 and la Di Paola famiglia left the world of food retailing behind us, with a tear in the eye.
Withington is now a faceless village comprising the usual tacky takeaways and shark infested estate agents. The local community feel has been largely replaced by a transient student population and like most suburban villages it seems like the decline is irreversible whenever I pass through.
However, the lesson I learnt when thinking back to the old days is that if you have to try that hard to follow a ‘corporate vision’ or stick to ‘brand values’ then maybe just maybe you need to try something else.