The limits of evidence based marketing and climate science

Despite the millions spent by the Brothers Koch to convince us that climate science is a conspiracy, I often wonder why so many people call themselves skeptics.  After all, climate change denialists seem to be playing a game of Whack-a-Mole, where no matter how many times you disprove their critiques, they offer them again and again.  Seth Godin talks about the limits of evidence-based marketing in his blog, offering a vision of how the tide may end up turning against the Flat Earth society.  Godin infers that at this point, there is nothing that scientists can do to convince a hardened skeptic:

“Here’s the conversation that needs to happen before we invest a lot of time in evidence-based marketing in the face of skepticism: ‘What evidence would you need to see in order to change your mind?’  If the honest answer is, “well, actually, there’s nothing you could show me that would change my mind,” you’ve just saved everyone a lot of time. Please don’t bother having endless fact-based discussions…What would you have to show someone who believes men never walked on the moon? What evidence would you have to proffer in order to change the mind of someone who is certain the Earth is only 5,000 years old? If they’re being truthful with you, there’s nothing they haven’t been exposed to that would do the trick.”

Instead, Godin writes that the best tactic to convince skeptics is a necessarily slow, painful process: eventually enough of the right opinion-makers will be convinced:

“Of course, evidence isn’t the only marketing tactic that is effective. In fact, it’s often not the best tactic. What would change his mind, what would change the mind of many people resistant to evidence is a series of eager testimonials from other tribe members who have changed their minds. When people who are respected in a social or professional circle clearly and loudly proclaim that they’ve changed their minds, a ripple effect starts. First, peer pressure tries to repress these flip-flopping outliers. But if they persist in their new mindset, over time others may come along. Soon, the majority flips. It’s not easy or fast, but it happens.”

Where does that leave us?  It means that we should appreciate conservatives that do have sensible views of climate science; it means that birthers and climate science denialists will make a lot of noise, but ultimately will not be swayed by reason; it means that we should continue to use reason, but expect that it will get us nowhere with certain people.  It means that for the immediate future, America will continue to have a very complicated presence in climate negotiations.


A Purple Cow in Rhode Island

This weekend, while visiting the Wintertime Farmers’ Market in Pawtucket, RI, I stopped by the booth of New Harvest Coffee Roasters, a local roaster of whom I am a loyal customer.  I typically pick up their packages of Whole Bean coffee when I shop at Whole Foods, but often I will savor a cup of their Pour-Over coffee while I idle around the Farmers’ Market.   On Saturday, I approached the booth, and asked the barista for a cup of Kenya AA Gaturine Estate, a coffee I had not seen previously at Whole Foods.  The barista carefully prepared my cup, then handed it to me.  To quote Agent Dale Cooper in the seminal television program Twin Peaks, it was a damn fine cup of coffee.  I asked the barista why I never saw this coffee at Whole Foods.  He told me that Whole Foods is very careful about what types of coffee they want.   A post card explained:

SOURCE DIRECT: How to connect coffee consumers with coffee growers

A DIFFERENT WAY

Source Direct is an alternative to Fair Trade.  As artisan roasters, we need to connect with small producers to develop the highest quality coffee.  This is difficult under the Fair Trade model, which is based on very large cooperatives that produce huge mixed-lots of coffee.  It treats coffee as a commodity.  We consider coffee to be an artisan food, and Source Direct is a way for us to achieve new levels of quality with our farmer producers.

THE MODEL

Source Direct is not a certification.  It is commitment to do what it takes to create real collaboration between New Harvest and small coffee farms.  The most important element is communication: farmers need to know what we want and we need to know what their challenges are in meeting our needs.  Usually it means visiting the farms at least once a year, checking up on the picking and processing practices, tasting coffee with growers and comparing notes.  Sometimes it involves purchasing a crop months before we receive it.  Occasionally, or barista trainer will find himself training 30 Costa Rica farmers at a Tarrazu wet-mill.

At Whole Foods, New Harvest sells 4-5 varieties of coffee that are all Shade Grown, Fair Trade, and USDA Organic certified.  Yet, at the farmers market, New Harvest was promoting a variety of coffee with none of those certifications, but instead under a new program where the company pledges only to “do what it takes.”   New Harvest’s Source Direct program, a brand new initiative from the local company, represents a potential paradigm shift away from Fair Trade.  The example of these two types of coffee, sold through two different distribution channels, speak to the complexity associated with the Fair Trade label as it continues to grow in volume; estimated worldwide sales of Fair Trade products increased 187% between 2004 and 2007.

Valery Bezencon, a management consultant and Peruvian business professor, in his thesis The Fair Trade Journey: Conciliating Romance and Strategy, examines the Fair Trade market as a whole, specifically comparing the growing mainstream distribution growth with traditional alternative distribution, and identifies the different motivations of customers who purchase Fair Trade products.  Bezencon’s analysis provides context for the New Harvest Source Direct program, as well as prescriptions for marketers and managers of Fair Trade products.

Fair Trade’s continued growth and relevance hinges partially upon the manner with which it is marketed to consumers.  The Fair Trade label that consumers see on products serves as an instrument to provide information to consumers, and to convey the underlying values of the company that sells the product.  Fair Trade products are not competitive on price with non-Fair Trade products, so the Fair Trade products must provide an added value.

Consumers approach Fair Trade products for different reasons, but for Benzecon, it all comes down to the level of “involvement,” or motivation, to seek out Fair Trade products; that involvement can originate from the product itself or from the Fair Trade certification.  Benzecon coins a term to describe the latter consumer involvement: Fair Trade adhesion, the extent to which consumers buy Fair Trade products because of their underlying Fair Trade principles.   According to Benzecon, increasing the Fair trade adhesion will result in greater sales of Fair Trade products.  However, New Harvest Coffee, a local roaster popular with foodies who appreciate both Fair Trade and good local food, is marketing a new product that runs in direct opposition to Fair Trade.  Why would they do that?

New Harvest took the initiative to communicate about its new product, directly to its most ardent consumers.  In one sense, Source Direct is, in the frame of Seth Godin, a Purple Cow.  However, New Harvest makes an important claim about the Source Direct coffee: it tastes better.  According to New Harvest’s marketing material, Fair Trade coffee is a commodity sold in mixed lots.  For a company that continues to sell many pounds of that Fair Trade coffee, that is a bold strategy.  According to Benzecon, the folks at New Harvest may be onto something:

Hedonic value is a weak predictor of Fair Trade decision involvement.  This means that taste is hardly an argument to prefer Fair Trade over conventional coffee.  Indeed, Fair Trade products do not at present differentiate themselves with better quality or taste.” (Benzecon 86)

According to Benzecon, the biggest indicators of commitment to Fair Trade products are Fair Trade adhesion, concentrating on empowering small farmers and improving their working conditions.

New Harvest emphasizes in its marketing material that Source Direct “is commitment to do what it takes to create real collaboration between New Harvest and small coffee farms.  The most important element is communication: farmers need to know what we want and we need to know what their challenges are in meeting our needs.” New Harvest is taking the most important aspects of Fair Trade that appeal to consumers, and repackaging them around their own Purple Cow: finer tasting coffee.  In fact, New Harvest seems to be reading right out of Benzecon’s playbook.  He recommends that the communication strategy for a company to increase Fair Trade’s revenues “should be focused on the dimensions that exacerbate a differentiated identity in order to nourish consumers with additional signification related to Fair Trade values, adding competitiveness to the products.” (Benzecon 89)

Despite New Harvest’s Purple Cow, Fair Trade products are growing in availability.  It used to be that consumers could only find Fair Trade products at specialty shops, and at grocery stores like Whole Foods.  Now, most big grocery chains have organic sections with a wide variety of products; even Wal-Mart sells Fair Trade products.  How can Fair Trade avoid becoming a meaningless, ubiquitous seal, whose standards of excellence are swallowed under the pressure of greater market share and revenue?

Most companies just throw the Fair Trade label on their product and leave it to consumers to judge.  An artisan coffee producer like New Harvest has the luxury of communicating more directly with its customers than a global behemoth like Starbucks does.   Benzecon has a strategic recommendation for any company that wants to increase sales of their Fair Trade products: know the market, including its consumer segments, and communicate directly to those niches.   Benzecon surveyed 433 consumers of Fair Trade coffee in Switzerland, and discovered some important insights.  He found that younger and less educated consumers buy Fair Trade products for different reasons than older and more highly educated consumers.  For example, the taste of Fair Trade coffee is very important to less educated consumers.  The Fair Trade market is much more complex than previously understood, and communicating with it effectively and efficiently will require more than a simple seal – it will require tailored communication.

However, despite their foray outside the Fair Trade universe, New Harvest is a model for communicating with its customers.  New Harvest baristas treat their coffee like fine wine, and empower their customers with knowledge. When New Harvest says they are committed to doing “what it takes” for their partner farms, their customers believe it.  The Starbucks of the world can learn a lot from New Harvest.

 


Frank Caprio through the lens of Seth Godin

Seth Godin, marketing guru, has an interesting take on the anger and the outliers in this election season.  If you aren’t familiar with his work, I encourage you to check out his blog and his books.

In any rate, Frank Caprio’s outburst, along with many of the reactionary statements of so-called Tea Party candidates, makes a certain amount of sense through Seth’s analysis.  The question is, will America buy it?  Godin writes that “When attention is scarce and there are many choices, media costs something other than money. It costs interesting. If you are angry or remarkable or an outlier, you’re interesting, and your idea can spread.”  The fact of the matter is that policy change is hard work, and it takes both political talent as well as consensus building skills.  Political candidates who are adept at playing the Howard Beale angry man, if they are elected, will have to actually affect change.  These outliers will undoubtedly prove unable to build consensus, and we the people will be back at square one.

 

How media changes politics

If you want to get elected in the US, you need media.

When TV was king, the secret to media was money. If you have money, you can reach the masses. The best way to get money is to make powerful interests happy, so they’ll give you money you can use to reach the masses and get re-elected.

Now, though…When attention is scarce and there are many choices, media costs something other than money. It costs interesting. If you are angry or remarkable or an outlier, you’re interesting, and your idea can spread. People who are dull and merely aligned with powerful interests have a harder time earning attention, because money isn’t sufficient.

Thus, as media moves from TV-driven to attention-driven, we’re going to see more outliers, more renegades and more angry people driving agendas and getting elected. I figure this will continue until other voices earn enough permission from the electorate to coordinate getting out the vote, communicating through private channels like email and creating tribes of people to spread the word. (And they need to learn not to waste this permission hassling their supporters for money).

Mass media is dying, and it appears that mass politicians are endangered as well.