An interview with the co-founder of The Collective

When Amelia Harvey and business partner, Mike Hodgson came across Kiwi gourmet yoghurt The Collective, they immediately saw the opportunity to launch the brand in the UK. Fast-forward three years and they're now accountable for 1.4% of a UK market worth £1.5bn. In this interview, co-founder Amelia talks about waking up sleep-walking shoppers, their strategies for building personal relationships with customers and the importance of a bit of silliness during office hours.

Tell us a bit about your personal background? 

I started at Kellogg's as a regional account manager straight after University and then went on to join L'Oreal as national account manager for four years. I'd always had a yearning to run my own business though, and when the opportunity came in 2006 to join a small, unknown brand called Gü, I jumped at the chance. I was able to apply some big company thinking from my role at L'Oreal and helped grow the business to where it was about five years ago, before it got sold to Noble Foods.

We thought the concept and the product quality was just incredible and immediately saw an opportunity

After Gü, Mike Hodgson (ex-MD at Gü) and I were looking for a new adventure and we stumbled across The Collective in New Zealand. We thought the concept and quality of the product were just incredible and we immediately saw an opportunity to bring the brand to the UK where nothing like it existed.

What are you doing that’s different to the competition?

The business is built on two fundamentals: we have a taste that delivers beyond expectations and packaging that’s really different from anything else in the category. With a low marketing budget we had to ensure the packaging would stand out and really leap off the shelves. With a black lid, bold colours, compact shape, and clear plastic pot - which allows shoppers to actually see the fruit compote - we look very distinctive from the traditional yoghurts in the aisle.

How are you innovating and progressing the market?

We've got a limited edition range that changes three times a year and it’s our chance to really have a bit of fun and to test out new product formulations on the market. We launched a Christmas pud special two years ago and it was such a success we brought it back the following year. Similarly with our spiced pumpkin edition with cinnamon and nutmeg for Halloween, we received lots of attention from the press because it contained a vegetable, and we were seen as leading this growing trend for gourmet vegetable yoghurts.

Often these limited editions go on to become
best sellers within the range.

We also launched a coffee yoghurt as a limited edition and when we withdrew it we received 200 requests from people asking us to bring it back. It's a great way to test new ideas and flavours, create a bit buzz and often these limited editions go on to become best sellers within the range.

You're the fastest-growing dairy company in the UK. What do you attribute your success to so far?

The product is absolutely what people buy into. The taste stops people in their tracks and once they've tried it, they keep coming back for more so our loyalty rates are very high. We sampled over 250,000 people in 2015. We sample in the supermarket aisle at the point of purchase and then once they've tried the yoghurt, it's getting a mechanic of how they're going to spread the word, either through coupons or on social.

We’re listening to their needs and finding out how their consumers are shopping.

We're also very curious with the retailers and want to help them solve their problems. Rather than us forcing our products down their throats, we're listening to their needs and finding out how their consumers are shopping. Understanding about the formats they are looking for, whether food to go or they're online, and we're moulding our business towards it. We're focused on evolving and growing with the retailers together.

There's a hint of, dare I say it... innocent about the brand identity and tone of voice. How do you articulate the identity with the team?

The Collective is all about inclusiveness and us within the business and our consumers being part of a collective together. There's very little of that 'us' and 'them' mentality. The tone of voice is just as you would talk to a friend, it can be funny, sometimes tongue in cheek, but always warm. That's how we would speak to friends, so it's not us speaking a different language, it's how we speak as people. It stems from the honesty and realness of the yoghurt I guess in that there's no artificial sweeteners or ingredients used. Whether it's the product or the brand we're very natural and very real.

What's your marketing strategy? 

Our real commitment is to build long lasting relationships with our customers. When anyone writes in to say either where can they find us, or that they absolutely love the product they've just tried, we'll write back to them with a handwritten postcard and some coupons, so they can go and tell their friends and family. To show the scale of this initiative, last year we replied to 2,000 people who had got in touch to send positive words.

We overcommit to this by changing the label on the front of the pack to their name.

We’ve also got lots of super fans on Instagram and Facebook, and we have a marketing initiative called ‘Knock Your Socks Off’, whereby we turn up when least expected at their workplace/home and say you wrote to us and so here’s a load of product for you to enjoy. We overcommit to this by changing the label on the front of the pack to spell their name. I've personally done it a few times and it's so amazing to see that response and the emotional connection you get first hand.

What kind of company culture are you looking to create?

People are such a huge part of the brand, so we've got a massive focus on the interests of the team. I've introduced quite a lot of wellness over the last year and many healthy snacks to nibble on, such as nuts and dark chocolate. We also often eat lunch together and if the weather is warm enough to get everybody outside for lunch or a meeting. They’re all quite sporty so most would rather go and run round the park than go to the pub, which always amuses me!

We’ve got executive coaches for people that
want to develop in certain skills

Training the team is a really important part of the business for me. I'll try to ensure it's bespoke to specific development needs. We've got executive coaches for people that want to develop in certain skills and people can go on courses when they've highlighted different areas that they want to develop and grow. Likewise, if people are in the marketing department for instance and want to learn more about sales I'll make sure they have exposure to certain projects to aide that development.

Why is the mentoring and coaching side of importance to you?

There's obviously the commercial part of the business and growing the brand, but for me the people side is really important too. Like many people, there's a few on the team here that have that yearning to start their own business one day, so if they feel they have the tools to be able to do so and leave us one day, it would give me great satisfaction. That's something that I really wanted and was helped with when I was at Gü, and so it's my way of giving back.

Everybody from marketing to operations has ownership of the commerciality, so there are no secrets

It's also why I'm very inclusive in terms of everybody knowing every part of the business, especially the commercial side. Everybody from marketing through to operations has knowledge and ownership of the commerciality, so there are no secrets. When we're performing and doing well everybody knows why we're getting there.

It sounds like you're quite flat in terms of hierarchy, how does that work?

We hold weekly meetings and everybody takes it in turns to lead it. The person leading needs to know the sales that we did last week, how our service levels to the trade were, what our customer service levels where, how many people were writing in, so that means they're really focusing on the performance of the business.

Meetings don’t have to be boring so we make it fun and it always gets the week off to a great start.

We also like to bring a dimension of fun to meetings so everyone is asked to bring something different each week. We've had an easter egg hunt, office chair olympics and a bake off competition in recent months. Meetings don't have to be boring so we make it fun and it always gets the week off to a great start.

What's the plan for the future?

We've got loads of the market still to play for. People are still sleepwalking down the dairy aisle buying the same brands they always have, and it continues to be our job to jolt them out of their buying habits and reach for us instead. We're in UK and Ireland and Europe is at our fingertips. It'll come with many challenges but we'll definitely look to expand there in due course.

Our aim has been to double the business every year, which is getting harder as we get bigger

How's the business going? Can you share any results with us? 

The yoghurt category in the UK is worth £1.5bn and we have 1.4% of the market, which is a great achievement for us. In the past four years we've grown at 600% and our aim has been to double the business every year, which is getting harder as we getting bigger. We sold over 14 million pots last year, and are forecasted to sell 22 million by mid-2017. 



 Amelia Harvey on building a challenger brand

1. The pack and the product has to leap out from the shelves. It has to be inviting, colours that are bright and vibrant, and a tone of voice that's welcoming, to make people notice it in the first place and want to find out more.

2. The product needs to deliver beyond peoples' expectations. It’s got to be solving something that doesn’t exist.  

3. Be curious with the retailers. Think about how you're brand can help them meet their challenges and demands so you can grow your business together.