Recently I got into a discussion with a friend about Levi Roots (aka Keith Valentine Graham), who you will recall is the Jamaican-born musician and cook who sprang to fame with an appearance on Dragon’s Den, a programme allowing entrepreneurs with business ideas to big for funding from white knights whose goal is nurture fledgling companies and in the process make a whacking great profit for themselves.
Mr Roots went on the programme to get funding to expand his Reggae Reggae sauce product, effectively a recipe for jerk sauce of the type used throughout the Caribbean to make a tasty dish with chicken. There was nothing particularly exceptional about the sauce other than Mr Roots himself. Clearly a great character and a great focal point for the product, he won the backing of the dragons and the rest, as they say, is history. This is the story taken from the Levi Roots website:
In January 2007 Levi Roots was invited on to the BBC show Dragons’ Den where he famously sang about the virtues of his Reggae Reggae Sauce and became, without doubt, the most famous participant on the show. Two of the Dragons, Peter Jones and Richard Farleigh, invested in the project and a rollercoaster journey began.
After the show, Sainsbury’s agreed an exclusive distribution deal and within 6 weeks the sauce was on shelf and the demand was incredible. The product sold as soon as it was available and for a few weeks Reggae Reggae Sauce was out selling even the brand leader. The sauce is now stocked by all of the major retailers and the Levi Roots brand has been extended across a range of other products.
The brand stretches from sauces to snacks and from chilled ready meals to soft drinks. Levi tests every product and only recipes that match his high standards are approved. The famous green, yellow and red of the packaging combined with the guitar arm and silhouettes of Levi himself have become the marks of Caribbean cuisine in the UK.
Levi is still passionate about the food and drinks sold under the brand name and his aim is the same as his original pitch on TV all those years ago when he encouraged the Dragons to …“Put some music in your food”.
You can indeed now buy a wealth of Levi Roots products, including sauces, chilled ready meals, ready-to-cook convenience meals, frozen meals, soft drinks with a Jamaican feel, cakes, pastries, books, mobile apps, you name it.
But the article says it all. Levi Roots is, I have no doubt, a very nice man, passionate musician and successful entrepreneur (after fighting off a legal case about the origins of his sauce recipe in which he was forced to admit he lied about it), but essentially he has become a brand. For all the claims that he tries every recipe (and if this were not true it would not be the first untruth on a company website), but clearly he does not run the company – he is its figurehead.
This reminds me very strongly of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, which was equally associated with its founders, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, and the set of wholesome values with which the brand was heavily imbued. B&J are featured by photograph on every carton of ice cream and their heartwarming story is to be found everywhere. From the B&J UK website:
Back in ’66, in a school gym class, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield were brought together by a special bond…they both hated running but loved food. Years later in ’78, Ben had been fired from a series of McJobs while Jerry had failed for the second time to get into medical school. So, armed with a $5 correspondence course in ice cream making, they opened their very first scoop shop in a dilapidated gas station in downtown Burlington, Vermont.
They soon became popular in the local community for the finest ice cream. Ben had no sense of taste so he relied on what he called ‘mouth feel’, so big chunks of chocolate, fruit and nut became their signature. While they disagreed at times over the chunk size, they did agree that they wanted to enjoy themselves – as Jerry put it ‘if it’s not fun, why do it?’.
In the early days the boys were pretty bad at book-keeping. After two months they closed the store and hung a sign that said ‘we’re closed to figure out whether we’re making any money’. And they weren’t. But they learned a lot and by 1979, began wholesaling pints of ice cream out of Ben’s VW campervan.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Ben & Jerry’s Mission
To operate the company in a way that actively recognizes the central role that business plays in society by initiating innovative ways to improve the quality of life locally, nationally, and internationally!
To make, distribute, and sell the finest quality all natural ice cream and euphoric concoctions with a continued commitment to incorporating wholesome, natural ingredients and promoting business practices that respect the earth and the environment.
To operate the company on a sustainable financial basis of profitable growth, increasing value for our stakeholders, and expanding opportunities for development and career growth for our employees.
At Ben & Jerry’s we’re all about making the best possible ice cream in the nicest possible way. Our business is founded on and dedicated to a sustainable corporate concept of linked prosperity demonstrated in our 3 part mission statement above.
Underlying this mission is the determination to seek new and creative ways of addressing all three parts, while holding a deep respect for individuals inside and outside the company and for the communities of which they are a part.
What that does not tell you is that Ben & Jerry actually sold out to industrial conglomerate Unilever in 2000. They too are still around as the figureheads, and receive royalties from the company for use of their identities, but while they badger Unilever about maintaining their values, Ben and Jerry control precisely nothing… not a word about that on the website about that, of course.
So it is with Levi Roots. On the packaging for his products, it says in small letters that it was manufactured by a company called Kerry Products, though other shadowy manufacturers are also used. Kerry is the shady company behind dozens of food brands, not to mention ingredients and flavourings – something they remain decidedly vague about. Of all the companies manufacturing Levi Roots products, none choose to advertise the fact, other than the legal stipulation that they are mentioned on labels as the power behind the throne.
Like Ben & Jerry, Levi is now a bystander who is the public face for an anonymous corporation, paid richly but without control or ownership, and certainly not the sole recipient of profits. My issue is not with either Levi Roots or Ben & Jerry, but the essential dishonesty of the branding process. As I’ve said on many occasions, it creates an artifice or focuses on a whitewashed version of history.
Just suppose, hypothetically, Levi Roots were jailed for some offence, maybe for fraud or something even more unpalatable. Would his image and name continue to adorn the bottles and boxes? Probably not. The fact that he is wholesome and charming is what makes him good brand material, but anyone who buys a Levi Roots product thinking it came out of a recipe from his kitchen would be sadly disappointed.
The products sold in his name are no less the result of an industrial process than any other convenience food, with emphasis on shelf life, consistency and shaving fractions of a penny off the cost of manufacture, thus to make them more profitable. The premium you pay for the products off the shelf is to buy Levi Roots, the brand, what the man stands for, not ever what the product is worth.
Something’s gained but something’s lost in the process. Levi, you lost your roots and sold your soul to the devil to grow reggae reggae sauce into big biz!
Can I make a suggestion? Stay true to the values of integrity and quality cooking: don’t buy Levi Roots products. Make your own jerk sauce to adorn chicken (here’s one, thought there are plenty more. Mine for example!!) It may well be just as good as the industrial variety, it will probably cost you much less, and you will have done it without fuelling the profits of Kerry Products. Enjoy!