Shaking up talent management at innocent drinks

innocent drinks is synonymous with cheeky advertising, healthful beverages and oh-so-quirky branding  – but does the company’s engaging advertising match its employee engagement?

Words by Sarah Williams

When I first moved from Long Beach, California (a city famous for Art Deco architecture and Snoop Dogg), I was pretty unimpressed with the UK’s health food offerings. Despite being extremely poor, as a Southern Californian, I grew up side-by-side with avocado, quinoa and the kind of healthful eating more associated with Instagram influencers than the good ol’ USofA.

So when I moved to the UK, I wanted to try to keep consuming healthy food and drinks. But where were they hiding?


Oh, they existed. But they were expensive, hard-to-find and mostly in London. It was 2007, Instagram didn’t exist and influencers were thankfully confined to red top papers and the occasional Sunday supplement. What was a gal who couldn’t afford to do every shop at Waitrose to do?

Then I stumbled upon innocent smoothies, more gyms started opening and you could find decent sushi in a few places here and there. Of course, my dreams of a Jamba Juice and spirulina bar on every corner were soon replaced by a fondness for baked beans and cheese on toast, but innocent drinks are still a lovely bit of nostalgia from the early days of my move to the Blighted Isles.

Self-indulgent Californians aside, however, this is a story about innocent drinks as a company, and how they match their overall PR with their HR – and how they treat their talented employees like the superstars they are.

The great thing about working in the People function is the positive impact you have not only the organisation, but on people’s experience at work.

A brief history of innocent

Firstly, yes, it’s innocent-with-a-small-i. As much as that irks the old-fashioned editor in me, even my grammar fanatic self has to admit it jibes with the company’s overall care-free image. And despite having been 90% owned by Coca-Cola Co. by 2013, the origin story is pretty charming.

In a nutshell: three likely lads who met at Cambridge graduated, then worked in advertising and consultancy, both of which are tough to do and still like yourself. So, they decided to try to be their own bosses.

What could go wrong?

Rocking up at a music festival in London, they offered people free smoothies, and asked them an important bit of market research: “Should we give up our full-time jobs to make these drinks?” The dependable, undoubtedly sober festival-goers said, “Sure,” and the lads all quit their jobs. At about the point of surviving on nothing but hope and mashed fruit, they found their first investor –from my homeland of all places – and innocent drinks was born.

A mere four years later, the lads decided to give 46% of their profits to charity (whether for tax purposes or altruism, it remains unknown, but probably a bit of both). That began a pattern of philanthropy, and the company now remains committed to giving 10% of its profits to charity every year.


David McKay

Head of Culture
and Workplace

But enough history – what about HR?

Sitting down with David McKay, Head of Culture and Workplace at innocent drinks, my first question is one I suspect most people have: what is it like working at innocent?

“When we say ‘HR’, the first thing that springs to mind isn’t likely to be ‘culture’, but at innocent, culture is central to our work on the People team. As Head of Culture, I get to work a broad spectrum of topics, but one thing that I love at innocent is the emphasis we place on our values,” McKay responds.

Sure, but values are something every company talks about – how does that actually manifest itself?

McKay is unfazed by the question, replying, “We actually recruit ruthlessly against the values, and they’re the backbone of our performance review process – we even develop training courses around them!”

He continues: “Culture is driven by people, not a central team, so when it comes to community, our approach is to enable employees to take the lead. That can mean funding, sponsorship from senior leaders, or creating the time and space for people to build the community right for them. We’ve always been big on clubs at innocent. We’ve got sports clubs, a band, a cheese club to name a few. Whilst we enable and support, they are all created and run by employees.”

But of course, culture at work has shifted enormously over the past three years, with more emphasis on doing the right thing by employees generally, but in particular, creating a fairer working environment for BAME employees, women and queer people.

McKay says that’s all been on the radar: “In recent years, the formation of our affinity groups has been instrumental in shifting our culture and employee experience for the better. We currently have five affinity groups: BEAM, the Proud Bunch, FiG (fairness in gender), disability & neurodiversity, as well as Parent & Carers. They are open to everyone to become a member or ally, and they have done some pretty incredible stuff, from collaborating on company-wide policies, to putting on events, and creating safe spaces for people to have conversation.”

We’re still rooted in the same principles – as we like to say: ‘staying little as we get big.’

So, with HR in mind, what are some of innocent’s values?

“We’re strong believers in the idea that having the right business meaning having the right people and our values create a culture where everyone is pulling the same direction,” he explains. “I’ve been at innocent for 10 years now, but we’re still rooted to the same principles – as we like to say: ‘staying little as we get big.’”

An admirable goal in many aspects of business, but particularly in HR and even more particularly in talent management: most workers have, at some point, joined a lovely, medium-sized company that’s fun and creative, only to see it disappear up the corporate ladder. Eventually, the original (and best) talent leaves to find the same, and the company culture dies a whimpering death at the hands of shareholder interest.

Lessons learned = change

During lockdowns, innocent introduced new meeting etiquette to help them work well in a remote setting. The etiquette consisted of six “house rules”, which, while positive, ended up being too many rules to remember – and even worse, they realised that some people’s calendars were still jam-packed. So in 2022, they left the idea of ‘rules’ behind, and instead, adopted three habits to not only improve meetings and claw back time, but to help employees create great culture both in and out of the office.

But, as innocent’s website proudly proclaims, despite being owned by the world’s largest soft beverages company, “We have an interesting way of working with them, in that we run this business in the same way that we always have done, independently. We receive great support from Coke, and are proud to be a part of their company, but we are also very proud of this brand and business that we built from the ground up. And Coke are smart enough to know that innocent has a unique set of values and a really clear purpose that are fundamental to our future success. So they let us get on with it.”


And what does ‘getting on with it’ look like?

“We had to pivot away from a really creative, supportive in-person culture because of the pandemic,” McKay says. “The first thing we did post-pandemic was position a new flexible working policy. The principles that sit behind it are that we want to stretch flexibility as far as possible, whilst remaining an in-person business first.

“Flexibility means something different to all of us, so whilst most of us interpret it to in the office three days a week, some adapt their schedule to mean they are at home during school holidays or commitments outside work. We’ve found that it’s given us the best of both worlds – a generous approach to flexibility, with the common understanding that we are at our best as a company when we are together.

“Employees have taken to the policy really well. The thing that is valued most is that trust sits at the heart of it. We don’t clock-watch and we allow people to define flexibility for themselves, within the parameters above and understanding that there may be times when you are needed in the office.”

During our conversation, I find out that McKay is about to become a parent himself, so we discuss how his ideas of flexibility will change as he transitions to thinking of himself as a working parent.

“As part of our new approach to flexibility, we also realised we needed a refreshed parental leave policy. So we began looking at that. In a nutshell, it’s about giving everyone equal support, so any parent-to-be (whether biological or adopted) can take up to 52 weeks, with 16 weeks of that being fully paid. I’m about to become a parent myself and am incredibly grateful for this new policy,” he shares happily.

McKay’s journey hasn’t been a typical HR one: after realising the legal world wasn’t for him, he landed a role at innocent looking after facilities and employee experience (“I was fondly called the Office Superman!”). 10 years later, he now heads up culture for innocent.

The Smooth Facts

  • Founded: 1999 in London
  • HQ: Fruit Towers (yes, really), London, UK
  • Employees: About 900
  • Offices and factories: London, Dublin & Amsterdam
  • Products: Smoothies, dairy-free drinks, juices, coconut water, bubbles, plant-based smoothies
  • Owners: Coca-Cola Company

I genuinely feel like my employer cares for me.

It’s a great role with such broad scope,” he enthuses. “I get to collaborate with so many people at all levels across the company, and work on anything from employee experience to communications, real estate, policy, values and behaviours… The list is limitless.”

“For me, the great thing about working in the People function is the positive impact you have not only the organisation, but on people’s experience at work and on such a huge variety of projects. One day I could be working on a policy or initiative that makes us a more inclusive place to work or helps us on our journey with B Corp accreditation.

“The next day I could be designing a new office or working with my team on creating an in-house event (we throw some great parties at innocent!).”

Of that, I have no doubt. Maybe they’ll invite me to the next one?

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