By Liz Lancashire

A couple of weeks ago Deborah and I were attending the Chartered Institute of Housing exhibition and conference at Manchester Central with a client of ours (Future Housing Review if you want to take a look at their website and the work they are doing on challenging Voluntary Right to Buy). While there I was lucky enough to sit in on a talk from Jo Fairley, founder of Green & Black’s Chocolate. I must mention that Beatrice Burks, formerly of Citizens Advice was also speaking, and was also excellent, but in this blog post I’m going to stick to talking chocolate over consumer rights.

Jo came up with the idea to start Green & Black’s while sat at home with her husband Craig Sams (he of Whole Earth Foods wonderful peanut butter). He had the operations experience, Jo had the PR experience (a background in journalism), the love of chocolate, and the responsibility to find the money to make a go of it, which she did from the sale of her flat.

The inspiration for the name Green & Black’s came from posh retro brands like Fortnum & Masons; green to signify their eco credentials, and black because they were making the darkest chocolate on the market at the time.

Green & Black’s launched at a time when churches were campaigning for awareness of Fairtrade, and Jo claims that their mainstream success was down to a vicar ringing his local Tesco to find out if they stocked this new Fairtrade chocolate, which prompted Tesco to call  Jo asking for her chocolate. The first chocolate bar, Maya Gold, was the first product ever to carry the Fairtrade Mark in the UK (and was my favourite chocolate bar and was scoffed on every lunch break while working at Holland and Barratt).

Talking about their success, Jo put it down to being first in the market (which they truly were), harnessing the power of PR over the scattergun paid for advertising approach, and believing in intrepreneurial thinking. In other words, nurturing your staff and making sure everyone’s ideas are heard and considered – as many of the best ideas, especially at start up stage, come from those inside the business.

A member of the audience asked, “how do you transform a toxic brand (such as social housing which in the main is not highly regarded)?”. Jo responded that it is all about what you can give back not what you can take out. A brand needs to explore what it can offer and what it can give – that’s how to transform a brand from a negative to a positive. (She is very big on CSR and Green & Black’s’ investment in Belize – where much of their cocoa beans come from – has had a hugely positive effect on living standards and the environment).

In 2005 she sold to Cadbury, not knowing that they would in turn later sell to Kraft. But what could have been the demise of Green & Black’s green credentials had the opposite effect. In her work as a Green & Black’s ambassador, Jo has already convinced Cadbury to become fully Fairtrade, and is working on the same with Kraft.

And the measure of success of Green & Blacks says Jo? That it’s not only available in supermarkets and garage forecourts, but it’s also available in the minibars of luxury hotels – it has transcended market sectors and is neither niche nor mainstream – it’s both. That’s not something many brands can claim.