The man behind Innocent’s 20-year Big Knit campaign on marketing with impact

Marketer Adam Rostom has worked for some of the biggest names in British business, but one of his campaigns has outlasted them all to become an annual fixture on supermarket shelves
Adam Rostom 2

Adam Rostom joined smoothie-maker Innocent in 2003 as its 25th employee to run its marketing team. There, he created the brand’s Big Knit campaign: a fundraiser for Age UK that sees its bottles kitted out with tiny handmade hats. It has been a big success, celebrating its 20th anniversary earlier this year.

Since then, Rostom has worked in senior marketing roles at Dyson, OVO Energy, Babylon Health and most recently pet insurer Many Pets.

Here, he talks about the campaign’s success and the power of creative ideas.

How do you come up with a big marketing campaign? 

First, I find it helps to build a gut feel about your product area. This means gobbling up and digesting all the numbers and reports you can about the category, but also speaking to people, eavesdropping on conversations, talking to shop owners or anyone who might have a view about your product. This gives you a solid base to build on. 

Then, it’s all about a brief. If you can’t distil the ‘what we need to do, why and whom for’ onto one side of paper, then you’re in trouble. And there’s nothing weird about writing a brief for yourself to marshal your thoughts. In fact, I’d advise it. 

Now it comes to the creating bit. I strongly believe time spent doing crappy drawings and scribbling words on pieces of paper alone (or with one other person, tops) is the most valuable way to get started. Groupthink, in my experience, waters strong ideas down. 

For me the critical part of the process is to stop. Stop when you’re coming up with ideas. Stop when you’re still hungry and want to keep going. Stop and do something entirely different, disconnected even and see what ideas percolate up. For me this is when I’ve had my best ideas. And when that idea comes to you on a towpath, on the Central line, in the queue for the post office or in a library, make sure you have a way of scribbling it down.

You’ve worked as a marketer in several industries. How hard was it to switch between drinks, tech, energy and now, pets?

I purposefully set out to switch industry every time I’ve moved jobs. Nothing to do with a feeling that I couldn’t bear to look at another vacuum cleaner, for example, but more to do with the fact that you accelerate your learning each time you jump into a new industry. I haven’t found it hard, because ultimately it’s about explaining your product or service to people in a compelling and memorable way – and that spans all industries. 

That said, some of the compliance requirements in the regulated industries I’ve worked in have been quite onerous to get to grips with, *cough, insurance*. 

What campaign do you wish you’d come up with?

Once, when on holiday, I spotted what looked like a beer can among the bottled waters in the fridge. The brand name was blazoned on the front in gothic writing: Liquid Death. I had to buy it there and then. Since spotting it, I’ve found out more and more about why Liquid Death came about and I just love what it has done. From the product itself (mineral water), to the packaging (recyclable cans) to its name, to its campaigns, I wish I’d come up with the lot of it because it’s expertly executed, the product is great and it is having an impact. 

Adam 3

Why woolly hats? Was it an easy one to pitch?

Woolly hats came to me during one of those ‘stop’ moments when I wasn’t thinking about work. I saw a picture of someone wearing a woolly hat and thought: “Wouldn’t it be cool if the bottles were wearing little woolly hats in the fridges to keep them warm?” 

I had the idea and then let it sit for a bit, but then more serendipity kicked in. I heard something on the radio saying that more older people in the UK died over the winter months than in Norway. That just seemed wrong to me, so that’s how the idea of donating money for each woolly hat-wearing bottle came about. 

I pitched the idea to my boss and the marketing team. I mocked up what a bottle wearing a hat might look like and presented it with two options: either to get hats mass-produced in some far-off land, or to get older people to knit them here in the UK. My boss thought it would be easier to get them mass-produced, but I had a strong idea of what was more Innocent. Hats doffed to him for giving me the leeway to see if I could make it happen. 

Why do you think the Big Knit has had a lasting impact? 

The Big Knit is a triple threat! Why? Well first, the knitters benefit. Volunteers come together to knit the hats knowing that money will be donated directly back to Age UK for the hats they knit. Second, shoppers benefit. If you stand and watch people choosing their behatted bottles, you’ll see levels of excitement and interaction you just don’t see around supermarket fridges. 

Last, Innocent benefits as this helps sell smoothies and has proven to outperform TV advertising. I believe that its lasting impact is down to the fact that it benefits society, as well as benefiting business. 

What has it done for Innocent’s brand and business?

From 2,000 hand-knitted hats sold in four delis in London in 2003, the Big Knit now weighs in at 11 million hats, it has spread to 10 countries and more than £3m has been donated to charity. I don’t work at Innocent anymore, but it’s safe to say that this woolly project has become a core part of Innocent’s business and I have to salute them for keeping the good work going for 20 years!

Do you think such an ambitious, non-digital campaign would be possible to launch today?

The more time we spend on screens, the more we obsess over AI stealing jobs, the more distracted we get by notifications, the stronger the need for tangible real things happening in our worlds. The need to bring people together is growing as this world becomes more partisan, parochial and divisive. 

So the answer is yes. I do believe that it would be possible to launch something like the Big Knit today and I would argue that we need more projects like this. More founders should take risks on ideas like the Innocent founders did and show the patience to let small things grow. 

Which hat has been your favourite?

I spotted a perfectly knitted hat of a little yellow duckling once that melted my heart. I had to buy the bottle to keep it and I’ve hung on to it for 20 years! The creativity, care and attention that the knitters put into the hats blows me away every year. I’ve seen owls, dinosaurs, cartoon characters and all sorts of immaculate creations. 

No one really needs to go that far, so the fact that they do shows real pride and dedication to what they’re doing and that really warms my heart, as it does for all those that buy the hats. Who knew such a woolly idea could go so far. 

Next, read the previous article in our series about the unsung heroes behind famous creative ideas: The man behind Toblerone’s ‘bear in the mountain’ logo, on what makes an iconic image