The Virtue of Humility: Why Coke's Ethical Store Failed

The news that Coke's prototype store for its "Far Coast" ethical coffee chain concept is set to close comes as no surprise to those of us in the circle of good-for-the-world branding and marketing. But that doesn't mean we rooted for it to fail. The world would sure be a better place if transnationals behaved as responsibly to humanity and the planet as they do to their shareholders (novel concept — but maybe we are all shareholders of this planet). We suggest the store failed because everything about Far Coast was designed to hide the association with its parent company. And in a world where the internet brings instant access to vast amounts of corporate information and news, having something to hide is just not smart. Especially when the kind of customers you're appealing to are turned on by the virtues of transparency and ethical consumption.

As we argued in this guest post a while back, authenticity is a huge asset in terms of branding and marketing. Many companies, from Coke to Starbucks, spend millions trying to cultivate it. Yet, if there is any kind of dissonance between that impression of authenticity, and the institutional realities of a company, then the whole brand is a house of cards. No one likes to feel manipulated, least of all when their ethics are being appealed to.

But what if Coke had taken a different route? What if they'd embraced the truth?It's a pretty simple principle. Imagine if Coke had been candid about their involvement in Far Coast - the public will always give you points for candor, and you will always get points taken away for deception. While Wal-Mart's efforts, for example, towards a greener business model continue to meet skepticism (and rightly so), by repeatedly stressing that they are NOT a green company and that they have a long way to go, Lee Scott has diffused a huge amount of potential criticism. For Far Coast, the imaginary pitch would have gone something like this:

"Look, we started our company 121 years ago - before the need for landfills, when no one knew anything about global climate change or overpopulation. It was a time when childhood obesity wasn't an issue. Obviously, some changes are in order. To move ahead in the most responsible way possible, we're trying new things. And this cafe is one of them. It's our laboratory for doing business in the future — a prototype for how to move forward in a world where resources are limited and our environment is overburdened. "Far Coast" was conceived to operate with a minimal impact on the earth and to explore the positive impact a business can have on everyone involved. Not just on customers, but the producers too. Please come in, spend some time, experience our concept, and let us know how you like it or why you dislike it."

The fact is when a giant company like Coca Cola enters this space, their actions will be suspect. However, if they enter the space by raising the bar on issues of fairness, environmental responsibility and transparency (as opposed to squeaking below it) — then it just might work. If Far Coast was to have any hope of creating the ethical brand they sought to cultivate, they would have needed to at least provide some detailed information about their trading terms and purchasing policies — and their ownership. And we suggest they would need to go way beyond the Starbuck's model of "we pay a high price to our producers" (but that's an entirely different post).

Ultimately, while Coke remains a huge source of social and environmental ills in this world, they have also made some major steps in the right direction. In particular, their efforts to improve recycling rates for their packaging has caused a big stir in the packaging world. For now, we remain skeptical of Coke as a positive change agent. And we're sticking with our locally-owned, community supported, fair-trade, organic coffee shop. Even when the corporations do get the formula right, we know the indie guys will always play better tunes.

Jerry Stifelman is founder and creative director of The Change, a brand-strategy and design agency that works exclusively with companies and organizations that make the world more sustainable, equitable or authentic. To view his previous posts on the ins and outs of green branding and marketing, follow this link.

[Disclosure: This guest post was arranged through TreeHugger writer Sami Grover, who also works for The Change as the company's Director of Sustainability]

Tags: Canada | Coffee | Fair Trade

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