This week a new coffee pod brand launched in the U.K., with, at the heart of its strategy, a direct “J’accuse” of existing producers in the market, in particular, the Europe-dominant Nespresso. Halo, a super-premium coffee in a totally biodegradable pod, has drawn considerable interest in the days following its debut, not least because one of its co-founders is Nils Leonard, former CCO and chairman of ad agency Grey London.
The brand was created amid what Leonard calls a “perfect storm”–he’d recently read a number of news articles about the damage the disposal of coffee pods does to the environment, he also met Richard Hardwick and David Foster, Halo’s co-founders, who were running a business supplying extremely exclusive, high-end coffee at events and they were, at the same time, looking at the technology for a biodegradable capsule.
Leonard says, “First of all, if there were just a premium pod, a pod that has exquisite coffee, because the coffee as it stands in the majority of pods is very average. Deeply middle of the road. But then you start looking at the problems in the category and we thought if we did that in a way that wasn’t shit for the world then that would be great.”
The coffee itself is very premium indeed, with several options including the much-vaunted Kopi Luwak Diamond, the world’s most expensive coffee, otherwise known as the “cat poop” coffee. Prices range from about $12 for 10 pods to $122 for 10 Kopi Luwak Diamond pods.
Part of the launch included a huge billboard at London’s Euston station, which drew attention in chilling fashion, to the number of capsules that actually just get chucked out. While ostensibly intended for recycling, an estimated 13,500 non-biodegradable pods end up in landfill every minute of every day.
The brand is named Halo because, Leonard says, “All I wanted was for people, when they pick one up was to think it’s good: ‘This thing in my hand is good and I’m going to enjoy it.’” The approach is a brazen gauntlet thrown down to Nespresso and other pod makers in the market. Leonard says, with admirable optimism, “In a year we will have forced the industry to change.”
He is scathing about the current state of the category and Nestlé-owned Nespresso, “They’re a billion dollar company, and they can make any changes they want to their products. They could have done it [a biodegradable pod] in a test market. There is really no excuse other than they simply don’t need to because the world hasn’t woken up yet. I think it’s toxic to sit there saying, ‘We don’t need to change’, that’s the wrong reason to exist, I’m sorry.”
Nespresso says it has tested other packaging options, including biodegradable and compostable materials, but so far has not found “any suitable alternative to aluminum that would adequately protect the quality of our coffee.” The company appears firmly committed to the idea of recycling and, despite attempts to make this easier for users, and a well-meaning sounding strategy, there is scant evidence that it’s the right way forward for the planet.
It is also worth noting that Jean-Paul Gaillard, CEO of Nespresso from 1988 to 1997, who launched the company’s first recycling scheme, said last year that recycling pods did not work because of the processes required to make the aluminum useable again, saying, “It is a disaster.”
Leonard says, “I will take it as a personal point of pride, whether they [Nespresso et al] admit it or not, when in six months time they release their biodegradable pod because I will know we forced them to do it. They can say what they want and [Nespresso frontman] George Clooney can hold it and say what’s right for the world, but we will all know it came from us landing in the market and calling them out.”
Leonard fantasizes about an email from George Clooney’s agent to the Nespresso marketing director. “It reads something like this, ‘Hey, George is getting a bit of negative press here and I’m not sure we’re over the moon about it, how come these guys have launched this and they’re nobodies and you guys haven’t?’ And the answer to that is going to be a very interesting email and a very interesting set of actions but I believe they will include them deciding to sort themselves out.”
Leonard is often credited with transforming Grey London from a dull U.K. outpost of a global ad agency network to an innovative creative hotshop. To be fair to his colleagues, in particular, then CEO Chris Hirst, and then Grey EMEA CEO David Patton, he did not do this alone. However, he was certainly the driving force behind Grey London’s creative thinking that brought about multi-award winning campaigns such as Life Paint for Volvo. He resigned from Grey last June along with its CEO Lucy Jameson, and managing director Natalie Graeme. A new creative company from the trio is anticipated when non-compete clauses expire.
Leonard is not the first ad man to launch a product or brand of his own, and he’s found the experience of understanding the fear of dealing with a physical product instructive. “I sat on a ton of coffee in Trieste about three months ago and you’re not selling air like the rest of our business does,” he says. “You’re actually selling a thing and you need to get people to purchase it and enjoy it. It’s a new fear, it’s a different fear, and I think a healthy one for people in our industry to embrace.”
The Halo brand is almost a physical manifestation of Leonard and all he believes in.“The dream of not being an ad agency but being a creative company that people wish existed, that’s about making things yourself,” he says. “You know, Pixar makes things, they put them into the world and we are grateful for them. That’s why people talk about Pixar in the pub. No one is talking about ad agencies in the pub, and I am really happy that people are talking about Halo in the pub.”
That’s not to say he is carried away by what amounts to a positive launch, “It’s not perfect and there’s a long way to go. Is it going to be a rampant success? I don’t know. Are we going to make the right decisions around it all? I don’t know, but at the moment it’s brilliant and people are buying it and that’s good.”
He’s heartened by the positive early response to Halo, “If I’m really honest I feel very validated. The approach I really believe in is, if a brand has a purpose, and you’ve articulated it well, it’s simple and you genuinely try to matter in the world, then the world wants to talk about you and will let you succeed.”
Leonard may have a reputation for being outspoken at times, an article he wrote in 2014, entitled, “Why The Perfect Modern Creative Is Fierce, Fearless and Female” drew backlash and praise in equal measure, but scratch the provocative surface, and it doesn’t take long to find someone who believes in doing the right thing and simply hopes the world will respond kindly.
“I want to believe it works. If you do stuff right and you just take a punt and put something together that the world pays you back. I do want to enforce change and I do want to make this stuff happen. I’d love to believe the world is a place that responds to that,” he says. “I want to believe that’s true. And I don’t know if it is yet, we’ll see.”