This summer, whilst working in Barbados, I got my hands on an old drum set and learnt how to play the classic four-on-the-floor disco beat. It felt great to (just about) crack something so quickly, partly because it makes a nice change from the day job — building ethical brands, which takes a lot longer than a couple of weeks.
We’ve been doing it for more than 14 years and punch above our weight by working with a range of partners to create brands that benefit smallholders across the globe. It’s hard work, but worth it both for the positive impact we have and because the demand for brands with a purpose is growing.
But plenty of brands talk a good talk; how can you make sure yours actually makes a difference? Here’s our four-step guide:
1. Get the fundamentals right
More and more consumers care about ethics, but the taste and quality of a product must be right for the market. Take time to research that market properly and not just online. Go into stores, look at products and pricing, and talk to as many people as possible. Make sure your product has a business case based on its quality and price credentials, not on ethics alone.
We’ve found out some pretty vital information while doing this. For example, when it comes to honey, Zimbabweans care more about the health benefits than how it tastes. But for chili sauces, only one thing counts: it’s got to be hot, hot, hot. On the other hand, Mexican coffee drinkers want to know exactly what it tastes like from the description on the packaging — more than the fact that, in the case of a brand we created, it’s been grown by cooperative, smallholder Mexican farmers.
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This taught us that, yes, having a brand that supports smallholders is the right thing to do and builds loyalty. But in many cases, it’s not the factor that inspires consumers to take a product off the shelves for the very first time.
2. Build relationships
Take time to find the right partners from the farmer to the shop shelf. They’ll need to believe in your products and be prepared to put in the extra effort.
There’s no one-size-fits-all way to go about building relationships. They differ for each commodity and in each market. We’ve worked with large co-operative;s such as the Grapos coffee co-operative and global commodities company Ecom in Mexico; with national industries such as the Barbados sugar sector and directly with smallholder beekeepers in Zimbabwe, training and supporting them. It’s a priority for us to find supply chains that are reliable and scalable — having structure and support for smallholders is a critical part of that.
Finding and developing strong relationships with processing partners, distribution partners and customers is also essential in getting the right product to the right consumers and proactively riding the bumps on the way. Spending time on the ground together, as well as having common goals — such as long-term profitability and social impact — is really important.
3. Start something
Getting going is often the hardest part, so establish a pilot to prove your concept and develop those relationships. You’ll learn so much about the practical commercial and operational details behind the brand and it’ll improve your chances of raising investment if you have a product and some experience in the market. Don’t always look to international sales — national and regional sales may have lower barriers to entry in the short to medium term, and be easier to manage.
In order to launch Amor Café coffee in Mexico, we worked with our partner, CAFESCA, as it incorporated a new operating model into its freeze-dried coffee factory in Chiapas. This included recommissioning a packaging line, engaging with distributors and national retail chains for the first time, implementing a fund for smallholder farmers and establishing a separate financial model for brand sales.
4. Be patient
Set ambitious goals for your product, but understand that there will be setbacks and challenges along the way. Building brands that benefit smallholders, while matching demand and supply, rarely goes smoothly.
Our joint venture with the Barbados sugar industry was established in 2007 but has only become profitable in the past few years. We now have an established sugar brand in major retailers across the Caribbean and EU that pays producers more than three times the world sugar price (unheard of in the current depressed world market), and has generated huge national pride in the sugar industry.
This success has come on the back of enormous amounts of work and investment, including: consumer research, product and packaging development, extensive sales and relationship building, all while working hand in hand with the team at the mill in Barbados.
So, in short, launching and managing ethical brands is hard, but success is enormously satisfying. Like playing the straight four-on-the-floor disco beat, but with a deeper sense of wellbeing and less complaints from the kids.