Playbook Insights | Three ways to make purpose pay

Matt Rogan, senior contributor at SportsPro and Playbook Labs lead, picks out the key themes from his recent conversation with Paul Brown, the founder and chief executive of plant-based nutrition brand BOL Foods.

Matt Rogan
By Matt Rogan | 1 March 2021
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The latest Playbook Podcast featured Paul Brown, the former pro snowboarder turned Innocent smoothies executive who started plant-based nutrition brand BOL Foods. 

Brown revealed how his strategic approach of focusing on core principles inspired him to cut the company in half, the qualities he looks for in an investor, the things others see when they buy into your ideas, and why what you put into a project is as important as what you get out of it. 

The whole interview is available for you to listen to here. We covered a lot of ground, but here are the three things that stuck with me:

When a purpose becomes a mission

There’s a lot of nonsense talked about the importance of a purpose of a vision in business. As we learned from EDF Energy in the CEO Playbook, this only becomes powerful when it acts as a lens through which the whole business makes decisions, a ‘strategic north star’ as EDF’s sales and marketing director Richard Hughes described it. I’ve never spoken to anyone who is as wedded to their business purpose as Paul.

BOL’s purpose is: ‘Inspire the world to eat more plants'. The logic seems pretty sound, not least as Brown explained: “the single biggest thing the United Nations say that any of us can do to address climate change is to adopt the principles of a plant-based diet” and the market is growing steadily as a result.

So far, it all seems pretty sensible, right? Well, what if half your revenue happens to be in meat and dairy? Brown talked candidly about why and how he shifted the purpose of his business entirely towards plant-based products, warning his team that they might not be able to survive the halving of their revenue. And yet suddenly, the business hit its stride. The emotive power of linking the purpose of the business to the future of the planet was really something to listen to.

In a nutshell: Building a wider purpose into your business is fundamental. New generations of employees will expect more than ‘business growth’ and ‘market share’ as reasons to go the extra mile for you. You don’t have to walk away from half your revenue to do this, but you do need a ‘strategic north star’ your entire team can get behind.   

The passion and science of sales

The counter-argument, of course, is that passion for your mission doesn’t pay the bills. Actually, I think it does get you halfway there. In the early days of talking about the newly-formed Two Circles, very few really understood our product, let alone why they needed it. It was really our energy and conviction that saw us invited to tell our story. After an early session at SportsPro Live, the chief executive of a global research firm told me, “nobody will go for that, rights holders have no money and brands won’t trust a sports agency with their data”. We proved that person wrong by blending early client results with a messianic belief in what we were trying to achieve.

Similarly, Brown talked eloquently about the challenges of selling smoothies on his initial turf in Scotland and Northern England when he joined Innocent. Retailers weren’t shy to tell him his product was ‘overpriced’ and the category would not take on. Just like in our Two Circles journey, Brown was looking for people to hear him out, and maybe take a chance on his product. As he started to approach the biggest retailers in the UK with his BOL range – Sainsbury’s and co – his sell evolved to consist of both right and left-brain elements. He uses science to identify the specific customer need his products are fulfilling, but balances this with a sales team which shares his energy and belief in the product.  

In a nutshell: Successful selling as a challenger business comes from winning both hearts and minds. While we might all naturally be inclined to sell on one rather than the other, to win you need both. 

Engaging your extended team

Brown has a core team of 30, with many more working across his partner manufacturers who have responsibility for physically making the BOL product. Brown spends an awful lot of time at those partner sites, hoping to help them feel like an ‘extended part of the team.’ BOL use surprise and delight type gifts – water bottles, warm clothes and the like – to show empathy and care for those who have the hard yards jobs of picking vegetables in the fields or manning the largely manual production lines on their behalf, day after day. BOL work hard to link the extended workforce to the wider purpose of the business, so that they genuinely feel part of the mission. As Brown explained: “the team know that we have a deep level of respect for the work that they do. We are nothing without them.”

Sport, too, relies on an extended workforce. Whether it is a brand using agencies, rights holders using catering or security, or a mass participation race using volunteers as race marshals, the sporting economy relies on these people who are furthest away from the heart of our business, and yet ironically often have the most interactions with our customers. They can make or break the quality of the product we are delivering, and yet we do not always take sufficient time to help them feel part of the journey.   

In a nutshell: To borrow a motto from Brown's Nana: “manners maketh the man”. Treating your extended team as you would like to be treated yourself in any given role is fundamental to unlocking their discretionary care and effort. This often makes the difference between good and great customer experience.

Ten words or less…

I asked Brown how he would sum up the conversation we’d had in ten words or less. His attempt summed up the spirit of our whole conversation:

“One life. Smash it. Enjoy the ride.”


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