October 16, 2019
3 Minute Read
Marisabel VasquezWhen I consider the biggest challenges facing the coffee industry today, I can’t ignore the gulf in standards of living that exists between origin and destination. There is a huge gap that divides the perspectives and lifestyles of those who consume coffee versus those who produce it. For consumers, coffee is a part of their lifestyle, where a cup of coffee is often an affordable luxury that many start their day with. For coffee growers, meanwhile, coffee is their life. It is all they have in order to make a living and support their families; it’s their day-to-day, from 5 am to 7 pm (or later). As consumers, we sometimes take this for granted, thinking of coffee as something so basic that we rarely take time to imagine all the stories and work that has led to our cup.
Having worked in coffee marketing for over three years, the difference in terms of what coffee is for different people, is one of the hardest challenges facing the coffee industry, something that we all must come together in order to find a balance and a point of equality. However, when coffee companies employ this difference as a marketing approach, it is a strategy we should carefully consider.
In coffee marketing, the stories of producers serve to connect coffee drinkers with coffee growers in a powerful and emotional way; knowing the origins of a coffee - who grew it and where, and what coffee means to those producers - immediately adds value to the product. However, when sharing these stories, there must be context, and as marketers we shouldn’t abuse a situation to deliberately shock. It is not about exploiting circumstances to sell the coffee, but about creating an emotional connection to the people in these stories. It is not about displaying a tragic situation or describing how these households are not luxurious enough. For me, it is more about telling the story of how a farmer has gotten to where he or she is and the sacrifices they’ve made to arrive there, presenting their lives in a more complete context, showing their faces, their families, and why they are unique.
It would be wrong for us to judge these communities through the filter of our own cultural bias just because it doesn’t fit into our own cultural context; comparing your own social norms to those of a coffee farmer doesn’t make much sense as they are totally different realities and contexts that are equally as meaningful. Using this difference to sell is very superficial. Yes, volatile prices are an issue and yes, the standard of living should not be overlooked so as to not be culturally insensitive, but relying on this for marketing is ethically questionable. When we rely on telling tragic stories about the daily struggles of coffee producers, we run the risk of widening the very divide we seek to narrow, as consumers feel even more detached and distant from coffee growers.
I don’t believe that guilt marketing is a solution or a way to bridge the gap; on the contrary, it can be damaging. Instead of guilting consumers into making purchases, we must take action. We must begin looking at coffee growers as a valuable and essential part of the coffee industry and, most importantly, we must recognize their efforts and how they go the extra mile. On my journey at Caravela, I’ve learned to see coffee growers not as suppliers but as our business partners, our equals. Marketing is constant communication and nowadays this communication goes both ways. Today, marketing has no space for poor communication as audiences are savvy and can often choose what they want to see and hear. For this reason, the way to market successfully is to generate value through quality.
For me the most effective way to market in the coffee industry is to be constructive and not destructive: to tell stories and to celebrate farmer achievements. As I discuss in our latest podcast, All Roads Lead to Coffee , every coffee growing family has their own story, and these stories are what have allowed them to contribute to the industry with amazing coffees. Let’s use these narratives to create awareness, appreciation, and demand, instead of shocking customers into making purchases out of guilt.
Marisabel Vásquez is the Marketing and Community Coordinator for Caravela Coffee based in Bogota, Colombia. After a year, doing her internship at Caravela and learning about coffee, the specialty market, the supply chain, whilst meeting and working hand in hand with producers, she was hired full-time to manage all company marketing and social media, which she has been doing over the last two years.