“I wanted to change the world one square of chocolate at a time”

Green & Black's Co-founder, Jo Fairley, speaks about how she and her husband built an ethically global chocolate brand from their Portobello home

“I wanted to change the world one square of chocolate at a time”

Co-founder of Green & Black’s, Jo Fairley, opened up about the reasons behind the success of her global chocolate brand – and also the mistakes she made along the way  

Founded in 1991, Green & Black’s is a British-born luxury chocolate company based on sustainable and ethical cocoa sourcing principles, using the finest ingredients with incredible tasting products. Founded by husband and wife team Jo Fairley and Craig Sams, the chocolate brand now boasts a turnover of almost £100 million a year and has been recognised at the Great Taste Awards 2016. The brand has also received Silver and Bronze Awards at The Academy of Chocolate 2015/16 for the Green & Black’s Classic and Thins ranges and been voted as CoolBrand for 11 years running. Jo took centre stage at the Elite Business Live event in March 2020 to speak about her successes in building Green & Black’s. A former journalist and life-long chocaholic, Jo spoke about the time she knew ethical chocolate was her calling. She discovered a sample of organic dark chocolate on Craig’s desk one day sent in by a supplier. When the chocolate hit her tastebuds, Jo was taken aback. She had never tasted anything like it. And from that day, Jo was inspired to build her chocolate empire.

I walked into Craig’s office one day and I found two squares from a sample bar of chocolate sitting on his desk, Jo explained. I put it in my mouth and this taste explosion went off. I was like, this is the best, most delicious, naughtiest, darkest chocolate I’ve ever eaten. What is it? Craig said it was the sample of the world’s first organic chocolate. But I can’t do anything because it has sugar in it. And Whole Earth was founded on the principals of no added sugar. But I guess the chocolate nagged at me and I nagged at Craig and eventually he turned around to me and said, ‘If you’re so interested, you do it.’ And what he meant by that was that he could take care of some of the operations, the distribution etc but I had to do the PR and marketing, which as a journalist, I had some insights. And the really big catch was that I had to finance it… You have some defining moments in life. I was a journalist; I was used to writing about other people doing exciting stuff. I have never imagined that one day I would have a business of my own. 

In a stroke of good luck, Jo had already sold her flat and used the money as start-up capital to fund her chocolate business. But then came the tricky part ‘ coming up with a brand idea. On a rainy Saturday night at their home along Portobello Road, Jo and Craig brainstormed a name for their chocolate brand. In just ten minutes, Jo came up with a simple yet clever name that represented their ethical and organic product ‘ Green & Black’s. 

Jo shared the factors that led to her success, from humble beginnings to becoming a multi-national household food brand. The green nature of their product helped to meet the rising demand from customers for more ethically sourced brands. But also, Jo had an immense belief that her brand would skyrocket. It was the belief and trust in the product that truly gave her the confidence to push forward. It starts with the product, Jo said. PR was very important to us, sampling, customer service… and the added extra which is the ethics which underpin our brand. And that’s something that we hear more and more about today. Because customers more than ever are looking for brands that have ethical and sustainable credentials… But if we start with the product, honestly, when I put those two squares of chocolate in my mouth, it was the best chocolate I’d ever tasted. And I think that having that conviction in your company, in your product or your service, it’s absolutely crucial. If you do believe it’s the best it can be, then it just makes it so much easier to sell it. Whether that is in our case to a supermarket buyer, or an end customer, and then ultimately to the kind of talented people you want to bring on board to advance your business. 

Jo believes what truly propelled their product into the mainstream market was their eye-catching, sleek and elegant design. Even though Green & Black’s took immense pride in the quality of their chocolate, the design of their packaging was a huge factor in helping them stand out from the crowd. Chocolate may taste delicious, but it also looks fantastic, Jo said. And that is more crucial today than it ever has been before. We live in an ever more design-conscious world. Sometimes I meet brand owners or business start-ups who tell me they haven’t got a design budget. And I tell them, ‘find it from somewhere’. It just needs to go higher on the priority list. That is your real estate, that is how you attract people to your product in a world where there is so much noise. Having had a career in magazines, that bit came very naturally. As a magazine editor, you’re always trying to magically create a magazine cover that leaps off the newsstand and into women’s handbags without them realising they bought it. So, I understood how important looks are in a product. 

But I still love how the brand looks and I think it has been essential to our success and is the reason why we became that first brand to leap out of that natural food business into the luxury market, she added. 

Jo admitted she never intentionally tried to fill a gap in the market per se, but instead, relied on her quick-wit and gut instincts when it came to identifying what customers truly wanted in a chocolate product. A combination of an incredible product, great packaging design and strong ethical values are what led Green & Black’s to becoming the brand it is today. To identify business needs, put yourself in the customer’s needs instead of using an expensive focus group, she added. I’ve never tried to identify a gap in the market. I’ve never used a focus group in my life. I still believe that the best way to identify a business need is actually to just put yourself in the customer shoes. When you do that, you’re able to tap into your own instincts and your own insights rather than using expensive focus groups to identify a gap in the market business I’ve ever started, every product I launched was literally born from me going ‘I can’t find this’. And I just have a hunch if I can’t find it and I would like to be able to buy it, then the chances are that lots of other people feel the same way.’ 

Every business makes mistakes along the way ‘ and Green & Blacks was no stranger to common pitfalls when it comes to starting a company from scratch. Jo learnt the important lesson of having a strategy early on in business. In the beginnings of Green & Black’s, the biggest mistake Jo made was not being strategic about exports. Sharing an important learning lesson, Jo encouraged businesses to focus on a few opportunities rather than too many at one time, as spreading yourself too thinly will cost you time and resources you may not be able to get back. When you have a start-up, SME or growing business, lots and lots of opportunities present themselves, Jo explained. But you are very soon going to run out of resources and money if you are going to follow every single one of them. It doesn’t really even matter which two or three or maybe four opportunities to follow up on. Because you’re going to resource them properly both with money and human resources. You’re going to do things really well. And if you try and do everything, you’re just going to spread yourself so thin.

Latifa Yedroudj
Latifa Yedroudj

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