The Collective: Legend-dairy yogurt, no bull

As anyone who has tried its yogurts will attest, The Collective produces what is possibly the nearest we are ever going to get to ambrosia (food of the gods for those who don’t know their myth). Bucket-sized pots of creamy passion fruit or raspberry and amaretto yogurt goodness used to be the stuff of dreams, but no more. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Harvey and her fellow UK Director Mike Hodgson previously worked together at Gü, that glorious British pinnacle of puddings, and they’ve certainly translated their dessert know-how to their new business. 

First of all, how did The Collective come about?

After working at Gü we knew the chilled area very well and just felt there was still a gap to do something really fun, exciting and innovative. It was total luck that we met Ofer (Shenhav) and Angus (Allan) who had launched the brand in New Zealand in 2009. In Australia gourmet yogurt has been around for year, but they felt they could do a better job, so they bought a dairy in Auckland, perfected their recipe, created the brand and jumped right to being the Number 1 gourmet yogurt in New Zealand. They started thinking of expanding the business around the same time we were thinking of doing something new.

Did you always want to start your own business?

Yes, I always had the idea of starting up my own business – my dad always had his own business and I enjoyed helping him out. After meeting the New Zealand guys we decided on starting a joint venture, and doing this has been a dream come true ever since.

How does that work, being on opposite sides of the planet?

The beauty of having the New Zealand side as well is that they’ve got their own factory, so have managed to launch a lot of new products that we’ve been able to have synergies on and vice versa. Other brands wouldn’t have that same injection of different ideas from all over the place. The raspberry and amaretto flavour was a huge success in New Zealand, even though it perhaps wasn’t the most natural thing to bring out there.

So what is particularly special about the brand?

I think there are three main qualities that make it so special: first of all the strength of the branding itself - the iconic cow’s head logo and bright packaging; secondly, and obviously, what’s inside – the beautiful tastes and textures from Somerset milk, its creamy, almost panocotta-like texture which no one expects before they’ve eaten it and the punchy, fruity flavours; and finally the innovation we come out with, the cherry on top stuff, like the raspberry and amaretto or coconut and lime flavours. We want to bring products to the market which are going to jump off the shelves, giving people something really surprising. For example, the 500g pot, complete with bright colours and distinctive black lid, is something very different from everything else on the shelf and so immediately recognisable.

And because we’re small and because of the way the products are manufactured we can be really nimble; we could launch something for two weeks if we wanted on a limited edition. We often tie things in with specific events, like the crème brûlée flavour designed by Geraint Thomas during the Tour de France and we’ve got something new coming out for Halloween, and again at Christmas.

The Collective Dairy

You must have had some great feedback?

Yes, what really wows us are all the emails and comments – we had someone wanting to have a civil partnership wedding using our yogurts the other week. We’ve had over 1,000 comments like that, just spiralling in terms of how people are reacting. It’s really important for us to get back to people within 24 hours, and hopefully they’ll get more people talking about it.

How important was it having a network already there?

Having a network was really useful as it meant we could launch in Waitrose and Sainsbury’s really quickly. Because we had senior contacts from our Gü days and were working with similar people across the different retailers, they already knew that we know what we’re talking about and could trust us. And luckily plenty of other supermarkets also bought into our product and vision.

What are some of your top tips for food entrepreneurs?

One of my top tips is for retailers to see the whites in your eyes rather than hiding away behind phone and email. Getting out, seeing retailers and speaking to people is so important or you never know how the negotiations will turn out.

Also in an entrepreneurial world you can become so wrapped up in your own little world and product that you really need to think about what the supermarkets want, about their concerns and gaps so you can pitch something they are looking for.

How important is social media?

It’s quite important, as actually getting the product into people’s mouths to taste is key. When we first started out it was a great low-cost way of building up a fan base, but now Facebook has restricted your reach, which has restricted how much time we spend on it. But Twitter is great as it lets us interact with customers and get their thoughts and feedback on products. People are always giving us suggestions on what we should bring out next!

What have been the major barriers?

We’re facing challenges every day. Essentially we’re competing with the big boys, jumping up and down and shouting for attention over the big voices in the market. Weather, product breakdown at the factory, size of the budget: every day is different. There are always going to be different teething issues.

Did you do much market research?

We didn’t do extensive research, as we were so confident in the brand. Now we can dip into our own consumers in a cost-effective way in a way bigger companies can’t do. If they’re going to spend a lot on advertising campaigns, they need certainty, whereas we can take risks and go on gut feeling. We learn best when a product has already gone live and consumers are giving you feedback on it. We know people love the base of our yogurt, so as long as we get great flavours we should be able to produce consistently popular yogurts.

What are the plans for the future?

We’ll carry on building the business organically from a grassroots point of view. We’ll carry on with tastings and festivals, because sampling is obviously really important for our product. At some point, perhaps, we’ll expand into Europe but as long as it’s not detrimental to UK growth. The UK is cool for now (and New Zealand, obviously).

Every day there are different challenges and opportunities. It has been an awesome journey and we’ll just keep on developing and changing as we grow. The buzz has been just incredible; I could never have imagined the feedback we would be getting simply from a yogurt.

To find out more about The Collective UK you can visit their website, follow them on Twitter or give their Facebook page a like.

They're also on Pinterest and Instagram too where you can see the latest goings on behind the scenes at Collective Dairy HQ!

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