The Rainforest Alliance is making its second attempt at an ‘awareness week’ this week – but for the second year in succession, has failed to gain the unqualified praise of the coffee trade.Almost unanimously, coffee roasters and green-bean importers seem enthusiastic in their support for the aims of the movement – but at the same time, critical of what the Alliance has done to support the trade in selling its certified products.
The second running of the Rainforest Alliance’s ‘Follow the Frog’ awareness week is due this month, and this has again raised the questions of how much the consumer knows about the ethical labels used by the coffee trade, and, of the effectiveness of methods used by ethical-sourcing organisations in promoting themselves in partnership with the coffee trade?
A major problem, which the Rainforest Alliance’s week shares with the Fairtrade Foundation’s annual fortnight, is of the timing of promotions related to an awareness scheme.Both organisations time their public relations work to ‘launch’ in the mainstream media at the beginning of the awareness week – and, despite pleadings by suppliers and trade media, they seem to fail to appreciate that the catering and hospitality trades need time to prepare their stockholding and promotional offers in advance.
The result is that when the organisations announce ‘it’s the start of our week!’, many high-street businesses are not ready.It is possible that hundreds of high-street coffee-houses could have usefully carried Rainforest Alliance posters and offers, had they been supported well in advance.
This year, there is the possibility of gaining interest through a new video film – but very little information about that has been made available.
The coffee trade does generally approve of the Rainforest Alliance’s work.It is unlike Fairtrade, in that it does not concentrate on a minimum crop price, but on the overall subject of ‘sustainability’, in seeking to put in place the best possible farming methods beside proper treatment for farm workers.
Last year, the coffee trade was critical of the promotional work put in by the Rainforest Alliance, which had effectively pleaded lack of resources and concentrated entirely on a project through Twitter and blogs.This year, it will do the same.
“The trap we got caught in was of a young event for which we have no huge resources – we have no budget,” says Per Bogstad, the UK manager of the Alliance’s ‘sustainable value chains’ work.“This year’s theme is the same one of electronically-promoted information – our website, blogs and Facebook and Twitter streams will all be buzzing.We will write blogs and tweet every day of the week, including guest blogs from representatives of companies sourcing from certified farms and from the farmers themselves.On Facebook we will reach out to our friends and encourage them to post images, experiences and stories relating to certified products.”
This has not gone down entirely well with the coffee trade.Where is the trade support, ask the roasters – who is going to equip the retailers and coffee-house owners with point-of-sale materials?Are they expected to fund it themselves?What about all those who do not have the time to spend on Twitter and Facebook, but are busy serving coffee?
One of those who supports the Alliance but is critical of their work is Ian Balmforth of Bolling Coffee, roaster of the Grumpy Mule brand.In a Caffe Culture Industry Profile recently, he actually said that in his retirement, he would like to work free of charge in support of the movement.
“I meant it – and I even I haven’t a clue about the Week!
“There is no point in having the best product in the world if you don’t shout about it.The Rainforest Alliance has a far better message than Fairtrade, and Fairtrade walks all over them in awareness.
“The Rainforest Alliance got their thing going in the UK some years ago by touring the roasters and sitting down and talking with the trade.They have got to get back out there.”
At Lavazza, another long-standing supporter, marketing director Barry Kither made exactly the same point.“Their relationship with us has taken them into a number of decent-sized high street groups – JD Wetherspoon, KFC, Little Chef, Pontis.etc. So the frog has had a respectable amount of exposure and most consumers they would probably say that they recollect seeing it… whether they know much about the organisation behind it is another matter.
“The Rainforest Alliance could help the trade more by providing operators with endless information and stories.”
The giant trade roaster Masteroast has attempted to encourage its trade customers this year, says the company’s Derek Burgess.
“I’m sure most consumers would be vaguely aware that the frog logo means something positive somehow, but the continued challenge for the RFA is to get their message across and understood.”
Unequivocal support for the principles of the Rainforest Alliance comes from Mike Riley, once the coffee buyer for Taylors of Harrogate, and now a partner in the green-bean importer Falcon.
“The results of their work are highly visible at origin – my concern is whether the average consumer really understands what the little green frog actually means.
“Rainforest Alliance certified farming is better, the water for washing the coffee is better, the conditions for the workers are considerably better… it’s the real deal.If I had to be a picker, I’d prefer to be on an RFA farm!
“They’re doing great work at origin, but they need to get out and talk about it – otherwise, it’s like saying ‘we’ve got an amazing secret… and we’re not telling you!’”
Although the Alliance says that it has a web page devoted to ‘helping coffee businesses develop communications and marketing activities and materials to assist them in their promotion of the initiative’, this is largely downloadable posters and a few basic hints on local PR.It does, again, rely on the coffee trade actually doing the work.
If there is to be a major move forward this year, it may come from the new video film.Again this has not being ‘made available’ in advance to the trade, being published first only on YouTube.Even the media have not had advance viewings of it, and the opportunity by the coffee-house trade to show the film as a feature of the Week has probably been missed.
“The video is based around a man who decides to drop everything to become an eco-warrior,” says Per Bogstad.“It’s fast, funny, creative, and poignant, a breakneck stream of narration, text and visuals.
“We see the main character, an early 30s, moderately-hip, city-dwelling husband/father, quit his job, say goodbye to his perplexed family, trek to the rainforest, become one with a tribe, throw himself in front of bulldozers, only to return some time later to find his wife and kids enjoying an opulent spread with products that have the frog logo on them.The argument of the film is that while it appears that this guy is doing everything the rest of us cannot, because we have jobs and families, we can all do something by buying certified products.”
Nobody doubts the argument, says the coffee trade.What is missing is creative work together with the coffee trade to make the maximum impact of an awareness week, and to plan for that impact to continue after the week is finished.
If they can only work with the trade to put a combined message out, says Mike Riley, the result could be extremely powerful.
“The Rainforest Alliance’s work does make a difference.They need to get out and talk about it.”