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The outside matters too: Bags, labels, and beyond!

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Marketing and content creation about coffee isn't as straightforward as it seems. If you want to know more about my take on them, keep reading.

“I hope that this is the just the start of a conversation about the evolution of the way that we describe coffee as a real tool  to push the industry toward a more equitable and sustainable place. I really believe that language has the power to not only change belief but also fundamentally to change behavior.”

Ever Meister. Can We Talk About How We Talk About Coffee? High Density 2021

The first time I read the headline of Ever Meister’s talk, I rolled my eyes.

If anything has been under scrutiny in recent times is the way we talk about many, many things.

Sometimes, I honestly just get tired of it.

But Ever won my respect in the first seconds of her presentation quite easily. She was very open and shared lessons learned after examining her own mistakes. Or what she perceives now as mistakes, which is essentially one of the hardest things anyone can do in public.

I think Ever was addressing green coffee buyers, coffee brands, and coffee roasters with her presentation. Still, I’m a coffee blogger. So, I chose to reconsider and reflect upon her talk like someone who’s eavesdropping at a coffee shop.

I’ll let you eavesdrop inside my inner talk, and one short exchange we had after High Density.

But first, let me disclose my assumptions about you:

  • You love coffee
  • You’re curious about Specialty Coffee
  • You want to dig deeper inside the coffee world
  • You might be creating coffee-related content for Social Media or your own blog

What was High Density 2021 about?

Context is quite important, so I will talk briefly about the High Density 2021 online event.

In March 2021, the Barista League launched High Density, an event addressing the entire coffee loving community with top-notch content.

I was very curious about it and the roster of speakers looked amazing. Seriously, I was impressed by the wide array of professionals speaking there. It was like Coffee Lovers All-Stars if you ask me. From coffee influencer Morgan Eckroth to former World Barista Champion and roaster, Tim Wendelboe, dozens of experts were speaking at High Density.

I found out about the event through Morgan’s Instagram post about it. And after I learned about the topics and the speakers, I couldn’t but block my agenda for the entire day.

Then, after a few hours watching the presentations, I was a bit surprised and nostalgic at the same time. The tone, style, and complexity of the content was similar to an academic one. And I must confess that I miss it.

But, let me get back to Ever Meister’s presentation.

As I said before, Ever was speaking to the people who get to decide what goes in the coffee labels, packages, ads, and marketing campaigns for that matter.

I don’t have any power to decide that, and perhaps you don’t either.

So, how is this relevant for you and me?

Because we buy that coffee and some of us get to create content about it too. We can recognize which brands are taking fair trade and sustainability more seriously.  And, in doing so, we can make better choices.

Ever grabbed my complete attention from the beginning. I’m happy that I didn’t pay too much attention to my grumpy inner-self. By now, I have watched her talk over a dozen times. Just to write this article. 

Why? Because I honestly and regularly ask myself if I can write and talk about coffee in a better way. 

At some point, Ever’s talk doesn’t only matter to coffee marketers and companies. Any coffee blogger, content creator, or influencer should make the very same reflections, in my opinion.

I guess we all take a leap of faith about the significance of our work. And it’s tough to look down after taking that leap while you’re still in the air, without knowing if you will land on your feet.

For this, Ever Meister’s talk was perfect.

Why are words so important?

"You choose your words" written with Scrabble pieces

“One of the things that I’ve learned over the course of my career as a professional communicator and writer is that language is really powerful. And it not only has the ability to influence what we believe, but it also fundamentally has the ability to influence how we behave.”

Ever Meister. Can We Talk About How We Talk About Coffee? – High Density 2021

I know that words matter. They determine the way we feel and think.

I learned about it a while ago, when I was just an undergraduate student. Back then, I dove deep into discourse analysis and discursive psychology. 

About 15 years ago I wrote my undergrad dissertation applying discursive psychology principles. So, I am familiar with the importance of language to the way we depict our world.

Still, words are just another form of action. Not necessarily the most crucial, significant, or decisive form, for that matter. But they are action, nonetheless.

According to Ever, language can help us with three important goals when creating content about coffee.

Setting expectations

Brands use language to set expectations about coffee. Using the label, tasting notes, etc. This can determine whether we prefer to buy some coffee instead of another, based on the promise of those tasting notes.

It can influence the way we perceive coffee taste. Sometimes the information we learn through the package or the advertising content can enable us to taste something that others wouldn’t if they didn’t read the same.

Setting a tone

It’s hard to know if the Specialty Coffee industry is building a culture around it, or the tone is a mere appearance. I can agree with Ever here when she says that mission statements and the values among Specialty Coffee companies can be shockingly similar.

Like a theme in a novel, a movie, or even a series, the tone of Specialty Coffee can feel unnecessarily intricate and cheesy sometimes.

Influence over people’s behavior

Noting the obvious here, because this is the reason brands use language for marketing.

As consumers and content creators we can deal with this in at least two ways. The first is to challenge content we feel is unauthentic or that is promoting something unfair. The second is to make decisions about the coffee we buy and drink, taking into the account the wording, the language, and the tone of the brands we choose to support.

Things to think twice when talking about coffee

Ever found a few things we can improve when we talk about coffee, especially if we are working for a coffee brand or in the content creation space.

Hide the dark side of the business

“I do think that it’s our responsibility as people who work in this industry today, as we explore the myriad complicated issues that are facing coffee growers specifically, it’s our responsibility to know it, to learn it, to live with it, and to acknowledge it whenever we can”

Ever Meister. Can We Talk About How We Talk About Coffee? – High Density 2021

Although the first examples come from coffee history, commodities like coffee are part of an imperfect, and unfair trade model.

Perhaps in the case of Latin American coffee producers we feel that we’re far from the colonial and enslavement model. However, many people are still subject to working conditions we wouldn’t imagine in our cities.

In Africa, war-torn countries like Yemen are part of the incredibly complex and painful coffee history.

Does this horrible and violent past have anything to do with our wonderful cup of coffee?

What can consumers do, anyway?

I am just a coffee blogger at this moment, and an avid coffee consumer. So, I asked these questions to myself.

Let me try to answer these questions without playing the martyr.

As consumers, we can push for lower prices, while caring the least possible for fairness and working conditions. Doing this, we reinforce and perpetuate unsustainable and unfair practices.

Alternatively we can be more selective and get more pricey coffee. And I don’t mean buying a Caramel Macchiato at Starbucks.

I mean buying Fairtrade coffee, finding single origins, and learning about coffee brands to know which are more likely to pay a fair price to coffee producers.

And that’s just the start. Influencing the people around us by sharing what we learn is more meaningful.

At the same time, it’s quite important to promote fairer practices among the big players.

Big coffee brands play a major role and coffee producers need them as much as big companies need producers.

Obscuring relationships types through language

Specifically, Ever pointed here something unnerving. As companies express themselves about producers like “Our farmers” it makes us think that there is an actual ownership relationship.

I’ll take the consumer perspective, because Ever explains the brand’s point of view a lot better. 

When we read a coffee label saying something like “Our farmers are passionate about Specialty Coffee”, we do think these farmers are somehow part of the company that roasted and packed these beautiful coffee beans.

Yet, it’s more likely that farmers have a completely independent business and that they sell coffee to different coffee importers and brands.

“Partnership” seems to be another fancy word to describe traditional trade relationships. For some reason, brands prefer to talk about business partners instead of suppliers.

Apparently it looks better and more fair to build a partnership with coffee farmers. However, most of the time coffee importers are just buyers.

Partners share risks and value in a common enterprise. Are brands really partnering with coffee farmers as much as they say?

Saviorism

“When I say saviorism, I mean any language that describes the buyer in the situation as a hero, or even as a helper, especially when they’re working with people from marginalized or underprivileged or oppressed communities in coffee growing countries.”

Ever Meister. Can We Talk About How We Talk About Coffee? – High Density 2021

Monetary transactions aren’t bad. Yet, in some contexts the meaning of those transactions can lead to weird interpretations.

For instance, the use of saviorism, as Ever names it, can make us think that buying a farmer’s product is to help her.

In other words, consumers buy coffee because they like it. Roasters buy green coffee because they need it. Coffee importers buy green coffee because it’s their business.

So, in this way, we feel less comfortable about coffee brands marketing their actions as if they’re helping someone who’s poor or vulnerable in some way.

My point being?

As much as I think the producer deserves to be in the Specialty Coffee spotlight, I think that we (coffee brands, content creators, and influencers) should work harder to bridge the gap between the producer and the consumer.

Sure, an appropriate depiction of coffee workers across the value chain is important. But do we know what people drinking coffee cares about?

During an exciting exchange with Ever, she shared a couple of ideas that I think are worth quoting here:

 I think we are in agreement: There is a power dynamic in these relationships, and no, that power dynamic doesn’t necessarily need to always be oppressive. That is why it seems imperative to me to (1) not make blanket statements about what is acceptable or unacceptable to show or tell, and (2) to acknowledge that context is probably as important as the “story” itself. 

To expand on (1) about the blanket statements, I also want to point out that the main trouble comes when we look at WHO is telling the story, and from what angle. There is a difference between a well-off white roaster describing the “humble” life of a coffee farmer and the coffee farmer expressing his or her own work and history.  Some producers have lots to say about what they do—many love working in coffee, or have a strong family tie to it, or have found the science or art of their work very moving. Others frankly grow coffee because there isn’t another opportunity available to them, or because it’s what they’ve always done—and some of those producers grow great-quality coffee. 

A person may work “just a job” and still be very, very good at it, but does there always have to be a story behind someone’s life and work? Maybe the story is “coffee is what they do to support themselves, but their real passion is to make music, or to cook with their family, or church, etc.” In our marketing, we tend to make coffee farming not just a person’s work, but their life and lifestyle. Even the most passionate coffee people on earth have something else they care about: We are multifaceted. 

This is a large part of why (2) is also important to me: To say “the story is what engages consumers” ignores the fact that not every seller owns every story, and not every consumer wants to engage with every story. I am incredibly passionate about coffee and I try to make informed decisions whenever I interact with it as a consumer, but I do not have the bandwidth to do that with every single item I consume—for many people, they do not see coffee as one of the priorities of their engagement. As an industry, I think we become wrapped up in what we are interested in and drawn to, and we ignore what consumers are really asking for (good coffee, prices that make sense to them) and instead we try to convince them that the story is really what they should care about without asking them to care about the people in the story.

Ever Meister. Personal communication.

I think Ever’s point is quite clear. We don’t need a romanticized view of coffee production to enjoy it and choose our favorite. On the contrary, a twisted depiction of the coffee production processes can lead us to make some unfair and unsustainable choices. 

If you’re part of the coffee loving community and you create content about it, I believe we can play a significant role in its transformation.

And if you’re a coffee-lover, who wants to simply enjoy high quality coffee as possible, then you can make your voice heard.

Do you want to try a lighter reading? I wrote an article about my favorite coffee hacks that you might enjoy.

Acknowledgments

I want to thank Ever Meister for bringing such interesting issues to my mind and to be generous enough to answer to my questions and challenges.

You can learn more about her work at:

Her Instagram: @justmeister

Her website: www.jusmeister.com

Her Podcast: In Good Taste

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