Gervase Cottam has turned orphan brands into thoroughbreds and launched pioneering products that sparked new categories. He’s now on the verge of transforming an undervalued, frumpy fruit into the number one, natural substitute for refined sugar. By Eamonn Duff
He developed the UK’s fastest selling super juice drink, gave Norwegians an unquenchable thirst for glacial water and delivered, en masse, the world’s first, fresh, gluten-free bread. But while Gervase Cottam’s resume is brimming with FMCG brands that have captured consumer hearts, his latest venture could change the world as we know it. The Edinburgh based entrepreneur is on a mission to transform the humble date-fruit into a universally recognised, natural replacement for refined sugar. Through his current brand Beloved, he’s well on the way to achieving his goal. “Of all the brands we’ve ever taken on, this is the one. It’s huge,” he told FMCG CEO. “So often in branding it’s smoke and mirrors – and who really cares? But actually, this does make a difference. There are huge health benefits beyond the sugar story and in bringing this concept to the world we are, meanwhile, enriching some of the poorest farming communities in the world.” Beloved doesn’t simply sell dates. It’s taken one of nature’s original superfoods, commissioned several years of groundbreaking research and developed a trade product range including pastes, powders and concentrates, that has caught the attention of the world’s biggest food manufacturers – all of whom are currently clambering for a silver bullet to the sugar backlash. “We’ve been in front of five of the biggest multi-national players in the world…some of whom already use, through different subsidiaries, quite a lot of dates,” explained Cottam. “We’re the people telling them where they’re harvested, how they differ in variety, what the nutraceuticals are, what the dangers are, what’s happening politically, scientifically, why you need multiple production sites and so on. We might be tiny compared to them – but nobody’s doing what we’re doing. We are the global date experts.”
If the product is innovative, the engine is running and you can successfully connect consumer demand with supply, anything’s possible.
Cottam’s career began with early in-house brand experience at Unilever and marketing stints at GlaxoSmithKline and Campbell Soup Company. In 1997, he branched out and launched Buck UK, an agency that specialised in buying, revitalising and selling unloved, cast-off brands from multinationals. Among those products was Unilever’s original washing up liquid Sqezy which, in the 1960s, inspired the famous slogan ‘Easy peasy lemon Sqezy’. After relaunching the brand with a glitzy PR campaign and sexy new bottle designed to be kept ‘upside down’, sales soared. In 2003, Cottam then co-founded Charteredbrands with a mission statement to turn “intangible brand assets into tangible financial returns”. Over several years, he performed successful makeovers on a range of UK household products including the former Cusson’s brand ‘Limelite’ and Unilever’s original toilet cleaner ‘Frish’. Cottam, however, soon realised that if he was to fulfil his ambition and “truly innovate”, he’d need to change direction. “It became apparent that if you were into detergents, over-the-counter medicines and pharmaceuticals, you had to be a multinational because it had all globalised,” he said, adding: “It was an expensive business…£10 million before you could even blink.” Food and drink, on the other hand, was – and still is – an entirely different proposition. “There are low entry barriers to innovate and unlike household cleaners, consumers rightly care about where their food originates from,” he said.
Alongside his Charteredbrands co-founder, a “very talented consumer strategist” – who also happens to be his wife Angela, Cottam began tracking trends and seeking out new opportunities. “Our model was to find someone who’d made a start in a particular area and accelerate them or otherwise introduce a new brand and grow from there,” he said, adding: “Five years, get it to the market, make sure it’s working and is really going to grow – and then sell the shares and move on.” In 2004 Cottam struck a deal with pomegranate juice firm Pomegreat which, after enjoying modest traction through a Waitrose listing, had failed to progress. “We put money into the company, we took some shares and then applied our model,” recalls Cottam. After tweaking the supply chain and taking control of the sales, marketing and finance functions, Charteredbrands advanced Pomegreat from £300,000 to £18 million sales – inside three years. “It caught that first nutraceutical wave and just took off,” he said, adding: “One of the most fantastic moments in my life was receiving a call from the Chief Executive of one of the top two retailers, begging for product because it was in such short supply. He said ‘what do I need to do to convince you?’ ”
Pomegrate had demonstrated to Cottam that if the product is innovative, the “engine is running” and you can successfully connect consumer demand with supply, anything is possible. Whilst looking for further opportunities to “differentiate” in the soft drink market, an offer arose, through shipping contacts, to build a new brand out of an old abandoned brewery on the banks of the Hardangerfjord in Norway. With spring and mineral water already firmly in fashion, Cottam converted the site into a bottling plant and then created a concept around pure, crystal clear glacier water, sourced straight from the ancient Folgefonna Glacier, located in the same region. When ‘Isklar’ was unveiled in 2008, it wooed the market with a unique patterned bottle – inspired by the glacier from which the water derives. Later that year, the brand scooped the highest accolade of Best Overall Concept and winner of the Platinum Award at the global Water Innovation Awards. Today, Isklar remains the leading bottled water brand in Norway. Before he could even think about sinking his teeth into something new, Cottam was introduced by his good friend, the energy tycoon Sir Bill Gammell, to an Edinburgh based mother named Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne. On the back of cooking for her gluten intolerant son, she’d launched a small Gluten-free, fresh bread business from the family kitchen. “My wife suggested to me that the coeliac market was the next big thing but when you look at any trend, you’ve got to validate it,” said Cottam. “And so we conducted a 2000 consumer study to get to, what I figured were a few coeliac sufferers…maybe one percent of the population, to ask them about their avoidance of gluten.”
To his astonishment, the research revealed that, at any one time, 13 percent of the nation was strictly avoiding wheat or gluten. “It was one of those ‘wow’ moments,” said Cottam. He recalls, with great fondness, two subsequent meetings with Sainsbury’s and Tesco hierarchy about their tiny ‘free from’ shelves, their existing brick-like, long-life, “horrible tasting” gluten-free bread – and the revelations that had arisen from his research. During those two separate summits, Cottam shared, with both parties, his belief that the rate of sale would be “more than sufficient” to sell a high-quality product that was not only “fresh”, but tasted great. “Sainsbury’s didn’t buy the vision, he said. “Tesco did. The rest is history.”
I had the Chief Executive of Sainsbury’s on the phone, telling me it was ‘immortal’ that we were only supplying to Tesco.
Cottam became Genius Foods CEO and managed company set-up and branding, with the first loaves hitting shelves in 2009. In no time, Tesco’s 700 supermarkets were shifting 10,000 units a week under an exclusive six-month agreement – with customers quite literally queueing down high streets on delivery days. “The free-from market is a real destination category so people were flocking to Tesco, buying Genius bread – and doing their major shop,” said Cottam. “At one stage I had the Chief Executive of Sainsbury’s on the phone, telling me it was ‘immoral’ that we were only supplying to Tesco.”
As soon as the exclusivity deal expired, Waitrose and Asda got in on the act – shortly followed by Sainsbury’s. Genius later became brand-leader in France and the Netherlands. It has since launched more than 20 product extensions, including croissants and crumpets, that are sold in tens of thousands of distribution points worldwide, including the Middle East and Australia. Cottam admits “he’s very proud” to have played a pivotal part in that story. “Sharing bread, breaking bread together is such a fundamental social activity and certainly, coeliacs felt very marginalised before Genius came along and really helped kick-start the free-from sector.”
In 2012, Cottam received an invitation from a royal family-owned company in Oman, to participate in business discussions. He had nurtured good contacts on the Arabian Peninsula through a previous project. The intriguing offer, however, arrived completely out of the blue whilst enjoying a rare vacation, with his daughter, in Serbia. “My wife suggested I get myself there promptly,” he said. Cottam’s holiday was cut short and from Belgrade, he made his way to Muscat. There, the seeds, for Beloved, were sown. Like several Gulf states, Oman is edging closer towards a post-oil economy and wants to foster agricultural work for its younger generation. While manufacturing, mining and tourism are all part of a long-term plan to diversify, the Charteredbrands CEO had been summoned to discuss a less obvious revenue stream; one of the few natural crops to flourish in the country’s hot, arid conditions are dates. With over seven million date palms, it’s Oman’s primary produce, covering half of the country’s agricultural land. As Cottam’s hosts explained it; a lot of people had invested very heavily in date agriculture and yet 50 percent of all date harvest is either thrown or ends up as cattle fodder. They asked: ‘Is there something we might do together to change this and bring the benefits back to our society?’
“Sure, the money still needs to turn but for them, it’s really a social project,” he told FMCG CEO. “It’s about returning value to a vast number of relatively quite poor, young agricultural workers across the Middle East.”
Cottam went away and embarked on a research mission spanning different demographics and the general attitude towards dates. As was the case with Genius, the findings left him wide eyed: the war on sugar was gathering momentum. At the same time, this often overlooked fruit was “a quite fantastic carrier” for all sorts of products that can substitute for refined sugar. In 2004, a share investment deal was struck between Charteredbrands and royal stakeholders in Oman. And so began the ultimate development challenge. “In the east, they truly understand, in their soul, what dates are all about,” said Cottam. “They understand all the different tastes and health properties of the 300 varieties, the agronomy, the knowledge, the history and so on. The demand, however, will be in the west. It’s going to be here, America, France, Germany. And one of the most fascinating aspects has been witnessing, first hand, how those two cultures can enmesh.”
Cottam created a two-part strategy for Beloved which four years ago, involved the retail launch of cereal bars, granola, muesli, and date nectar, to “demonstrate demand”.
While that popular consumer range is now firmly established in retailers such as Waitrose, the slow burn remains the brand’s ingredients business which is a dream come true for food manufacturers, marketers and the back-of-pack brigade chasing both healthier ingredients and the coveted “no added sugar” tag. Dates are high in fibre, antioxidants and studies have found them to promote brain health. Unlike honey, they’re also accessible to the rapidly expanding vegan market.
“People probably don’t realise this but date paste, date syrup, chopped dates, dates as an ingredient are now the driver for a very large number of the healthy, low sugar alternatives in snacks,” said Cottam.
“We’ve got customers in confectionery that we’re currently doing trials with…global brands that you’d never have thought would have considered it.” “For us now, this is way beyond a consumer brand,” he adds. “This is about connecting a crop to global demand. The end goal is to connect to the biggest fast-moving consumer goods companies on the planet…the Unilever’s of the world…and bring the ingredient to them – so they can transform and revolutionise their brands.”