Putting core values at the centre of your business

13 February 2013

Ella’s Kitchen’s story, Part 1

Paul-LindleyBasing your whole business around a set of core values is a great way to engage, energise and enthuse both your customers and your employees. And that’s exactly what Paul Lindley, founder and CEO of Ella’s Kitchen, did when he first set up his business. In seven years he’s gone from a one-man operation to being the UK’s top premium baby food brand. So, how did he do it? And how have those core values and his unique vision informed the growth and strategy of the business? In part one of this interview, we catch up with Paul to find out. 

How did you first get into the business world?

“I originally qualified as a chartered accountant with one of the Big Four professional services firms. I knew that ‘suited and booted’ wasn’t my life, but it was great training and gave me an understanding and an introduction to business. I very much enjoyed the learning I did and certainly have used it since then when it’s been my own money that I’m moving around and trying to invest.

After that, I moved to Nickelodeon, the kids TV channel, and I was there for nine years. I started as the financial controller, and become the finance director, commercial director, communications manager and general manager by the end of it. It was really interesting because Nickelodeon is a joint venture between Viacom and News Corp, two really huge media companies. Yet the area we were in was very entrepreneurial – digital television was a new industry and the management team were all in their late twenties. So no-one could tell us how to do it because it had never been done before. It felt like we could come up with ideas, people would back us by investing and we built a great business there – we became the number one brand for children’s entertainment in the UK.”

What inspired you to leave Nickelodeon and set up your own business?

“Over that journey at Nickelodeon I learnt loads about marketing and become a marketeer, I suppose. I thought about the consumer first rather than the finance first. What I learnt when we built that brand was about thinking like a child and thinking about what children want. And engaging with the parents so they’re happy that their kids can watch Nickelodeon because it’s safe and won’t have violent cartoons and that the adverts would be appropriate etc. So over those nine years, my professional knowledge and confidence grew because I’d looked after the whole business, and so had my understanding of children, their development, how children relate to each other and their parents and brands.

By the end of my time there I suppose two things were happening in my life: I was having my own children – Ella was born in 1999 and Patrick in 2002 – and facing all the challenges you do as a new parent. I was seeing first-hand all the things that I’d learnt about what happens to children and really being an active father. But on the professional side, I was learning about poor children’s health and how that’s growing, kids getting overweight and 20% of them being obese etc. So those two things were coming together. I suppose I was also dealing, professionally, with television being seen as a bad thing for children’s health and obesity rates because they were either watching bad ads or not doing exercise because they were watching too much TV.

So circumstances and pro-activity came together where I had the idea of talking some of the learnings we’d had from Nickelodeon – put the consumer first, think like a child, get parents on board – but to use that to create my own brand to improve children’s health by offering them healthy food that they would find fun and cool and be able to interact with and eat. That was the genesis of the idea, I suppose.”

What timescale did you give yourself to get Ella’s Kitchen up and running?

“Within six months I was confident enough to leave my job – in 2004 this is now – with a view to giving myself two years to get to market. So if I didn’t get to market, we’d have had no holidays for two years and cut back on things, but I’d have learnt the equivalent of an MBA, really. But I was determined it would work and I had a very clear vision of what our brand would be, without really knowing what the products would be. And over the two years I found packaging that I thought would be great for baby and children’s food and which no-one had ever used before. I built that into the brand and by 2006 we’d launched – and in fact we’ve just had our seventh birthday.

We launched with two products and we now have 80. We launched exclusively with Sainsbury’s and now we’re all over the UK and in 12 markets around the world. It’s been a case of sustained and constant growth, driven by the twin things of innovation – we revolutionised the category as most baby food will now be in pouches – and we’ve built a brand that’s different, has sustainable differences for the consumer and puts the consumer first. That’s been a big part of our success – being able to keep that brand and our values through the first seven years and imbibe our team with those values is something you can’t learn at accountancy school. It’s about life experience. Businesses that are built on values are the businesses that will succeed.”

How difficult was it to launch the brand to the big supermarket chains?

We launched through 350 Sainsbury’s stores, which was unusual. We hadn’t been in farm shops first or built our way up. I went in as myself to the different retailers and Sainsbury’s saw the innovation and took a risk. There’s a certain naivety, I guess, in thinking that anything is possible, but the Ella’s Kitchen story shows that anything is possible. I had a passion for what I was doing and a deep knowledge of children, plus a very thought-through marketing plan and financial plan which were very much part of the success of landing that first big account.”

At this point did you have the prototype ready and a clear idea of the brand vision?

“Yes, I’d seen the pouch in France with non-children’s products. But let me back up a little and tell you what Ella’s Kitchen is all about. Ella’s my daughter and the vision is that through our products we’ll give children a better relationship with food that will set them up so they have healthy habits that will last them a lifetime, and to do this as early as possible. So we don’t want them to see food as a one sense, functional thing. It’s fun and it’s multi-sensorial so everything about our brand tries to connect with those senses: it’s got to taste brilliant and better than anything else and, from the mum and dad’s point of view, it’s got to have the best nutrition and be convenient.

But from a child’s point of view, we win because we’re colourful, we speak their language, we do campaigns focusing on smell and touch etc. All of those things are right at the heart of our brand. So our vision, right from the beginning, has been about those values and not about making a £100m business. It’s about thinking, let’s feed children better, let’s give parents more opportunities to trust baby food and to find baby food for areas of their day where it wasn’t there before, and let’s allow children to really enjoy food.”

Ellas-Kitchen

So would it be fair to say there’s been a social, ethical aim to brand right from the outset?

“Yes, and I think that’s bang on trend with how business will develop and what consumers will expect of them. I really think that ‘good’ business is good business, and I mean ‘good’ business as in addressing a challenge that’s faced by society and adding value to consumers. Those businesses that provide that, that build an emotional connection with consumers and try to make a difference, will be the ones that succeed. In fact, we’ve just launched our own campaign, Averting a Recipe for Disaster, which aims to deal with the growing problems of childhood obesity and malnutrition.

As businesses become more open and things can be tweeted and Facebooked, and articles can be blogged as well as put into print, you as a company and what you stand for becomes more accountable. You have to come up with answers to questions from your customers that you’d never thought about before. If you have a set of core values that tell you why you’ve done things, then the answer’s there within – and I think we’re a great example of a business that has succeeded because of that.”

How important has the consumer feedback you get through your social media channels been to the development of the business?

“In a very broad context, I think it democractises the art of doing business and the opportunities for entrepreneurial start-up businesses. Through social media, you don’t need massive TV advertising budgets to get going and to get people hearing about you – as you did twenty years ago. You can get word of mouth out free through social media. And that means that entrepreneurs can establish a brand more quickly.

That’s the macro, but in the micro, looking at Ella’s Kitchen, we’re a brand that sets out to be more than just functional. One of the things that surprised me in the beginning was that the baby food category was very functional. The brands and the products hadn’t changed in 20 years, whereas people’s lives had changed completely. There was a lack of emotion in the brands and yet people are at their most emotional when they first have babies.

So that’s what we’ve tried to work with: the real story of my family; using all the senses; and communicating as openly, and on as many levels, as possible with mums and dads. It’s so important to communicate, especially when parents have small children and are at home for most of the day. And social media is a fantastic way to communicate. The success of mums.net, netmums.com and people like that are evidence that this demographic, in business terms, wants to communicate and those companies that want to communicate do so best.”

Does your product range vary by territory? Do you see differences in food culture between countries?

“I think people are more the same than they are different. And the common denominator of why someone buys from you, trusts you and believes in you in one market will be the same in another market. In our world, people love their babies in the same way, basically. Babies are going to grow teeth, use the pincer grip, want solid food basically at the same age.

There are obviously cultural differences and it’s vital to understand those. But if you start from this viewpoint that we’re more the same than different, you start with an optimistic view that our brand can be relevant everywhere and that we can export. But if you just transplant something that works in once country to another, it won’t necessarily work, because of those cultural and societal differences. For example, in the US, they don’t use any fish in baby food at all. Fish is a good source of protein and has all the omega oils but it’s not culturally accepted. So we could have piled in with a fish-based recipe that wouldn’t have worked.

We have slightly adapted some recipes and products for some of the markets we’re in and we’ve also adapted the way we communicate the brand. I think exporting is easier than it ever has been, and those things you need to do to understand cultural differences are really at the ends of your fingertips – there’s so much desktop research you can do and there are things like Skype and LinkedIn, which are free.”

Is there potential for you to move into any of the emerging markets?

“Again, I think we’d need to do our desktop research. I think a good example is China. If you look at the numbers of people there and look at the numbers of people who will shop in a Western supermarket and buy baby products then the numbers are big. Their GDP has been growing around 10% every year over the last 20 years, which means there’s another China every nine years in terms of the economy! To put that in context, I don’t think the British economy has grown by 10% since the industrial revolution. China has 157 cities of over a million people, whereas Europe has 18.

Going to China adds another level of understanding. You see that most of those cities have an infrastructure that’s equivalent to the US from 1890, so if you’re a British construction company, it’s brilliant. But if you’re expecting to do something that requires a more modern infrastructure, it’s not so great. And when you get to China and you observe people cooking, there are a whole lot of social dynamics there that create challenges. Baby food, as we know it, isn’t really a big category at the moment.

So, to answer your question, out of the developing markets there are huge amounts of people who are looking for the health, convenience and fun that baby food and our brand can bring. If the infrastructure and the legislation and consumer demand is there, we’re interested in going there. We’ll go to an emerging market within the next two years or so and we’ll relish the challenge to build our brand around local factors that aren’t Westernised or anglophile.”

You can read the second part of our interview with Paul next week, where he talks about the challenges of preserving your brand values as you grow, the advantages of being a private business and the need for the UK to encourage entrepreneurialism, innovation and our unique skills and knowledge.

You can read Ella’s Kitchen’s new report into child health and malnutrition, Averting a Recipe for Disaster, at www.avertingarecipefordisaster.com where you can also pledge your support for their 25-year plan to combat childhood obesity and malnutrition.

 

 

 

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