Brand Health Check: Levi Roots

Brand Health Check: Levi Roots
Brand Health Check: Levi Roots

Will the revelation that the founder's sauce-origin story was fictional hit sales?

Few brands have truly authentic personality, but when Levi Roots burst onto our small screens, his charm winning over the audience of Dragons' Den and two of the investors, there were few people who weren't rooting for him to make a success of his Reggae Reggae sauce.

Probably the biggest story in the history of the BBC series, the sauce went into mass production and gained listings, initially with Sainsbury's, then the other major supermarkets. The expanded range now clocks up annual sales of about £30m, with a debut TV ad in the wings for 2012.

Roots made NPD look so easy. That's what happens when you have a killer story: a grandmother's recipe, plus 15 years selling your product to delighted revellers at Notting Hill Carnival.

Except, it seems, none of it was true. In court this month, while fighting a legal dispute with his former business partner over a share of profits, Roots admitted that he had lied - and, heaven forbid, announced it was 'my marketing ploy', cooked up for the Dragons.

'When I was trying to market the sauce, I thought of every way that I was connected with music and the Notting Hill Carnival,' said Roots. 'I tried my best to make a story of it.'

He has, no doubt, been a marketer's dream; but will the British public, who embraced the man and his story, still buy into that brand personality knowing it was a ploy all along?

We asked Green & Black's founder and president Craig Sams, and Ben Slater, founder of innovation consultancy Bow & Arrow.

 

DIAGNOSIS

CRAIG SAMS, FOUNDER AND PRESIDENT, GREEN & BLACK'S

What a shocker - a marketing guy is in court admitting that his product claims were nothing but fluff. Whatever next? As Marie Antoinette famously commented: 'There is nothing new, only the newly rediscovered.'

I developed 'my' Belizean hot sauce recipe from a Jamaican cookbook. I gave it to Thomasina Miers at Wahaca and it's on her menu as 'our new Habanero Hot Sauce'. In 1977, I created the world's first fruit juice-sweetened jams and within five years there were 10 copycat brands on the market.

If I had been able to copyright that recipe and charge everyone else 1%, I'd be coining £500,000 a year.

It's always frustrating that a musician can arrange a couple of notes slightly differently from another musician and copyright the tune for a lifetime of royalties, but it's almost impossible to do it with food recipes.

If you want to bottle a cola, any flavour house will ask you whether you want Coke or Pepsi and give you a precise copy. Coca-Cola couldn't care less - but copy its brand and you die.

REMEDY

- Roots has gone a long way to putting things right by showing massive respect for his grandmother, like a good Jamaican grandson should.

- Not lying in court is refreshing in the context of some recent Select Committee hearings.

- Roots should carry on promoting himself by averring that, in the final analysis, the product is about him, not the recipe.

- Next year, put the brand's money where Roots' mouth was, sponsor a steel band at Notting Hill Carnival and give free sauce to the multiplicity of merchants and traders at the event.

BEN SLATER, FOUNDER, BOW & ARROW

Isn't it typical? Man does well, British press tries to hang him. How inspiring at a time when entrepreneurialism is the big (only) bet on the future of Britain.

So, he said it was his grandmother's recipe. So what? If people are really buying the sauce because Roots' faraway grandmother developed the recipe, they are missing the point.

You do not create a £30m business that spans food, events, music, publishing and charity based solely on the origin of a recipe.

Reggae Reggae achieved success because it is a classic piece of innovation; spotting a common problem and solving it. Problem: the modern British palate was getting bored of staple, traditional and samey meals. Solution: introduce stronger, ethnic tastes into mass products and gain mainstream distribution. Stir in an immense amount of personality and lift off.

The brand fully earned the Sainsbury's distribution, and credit to the supermarket for rewarding Roots' creativity.

REMEDY

- Never give up. Never stop being the man that beats the odds and reinvents the game.

- Ignore the meaningless distraction and keep doing what made the business successful in the first place.

- Keep innovating. Consumers are still yearning for more taste and spirit on their plates. Is it snacks? Is it ready to eat? Is it alcohol?

- Turn up the music. The brand was born with a powerful narrative. Forget Grandma, think about music, Jamaican culture and how it can bring more of it into people's lives.

- Keep smiling. Roots is a credit to this country and the world of business. He should hold his head high and lean in.

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