Karma Cola co-founder Simon Coley on sourcing organic, visual storytelling and transparency

What goes around comes around. Possibly not a phrase that’s often heard in the board rooms of the giant cola companies, but that’s the founding philosophy of Karma Cola, the UK’s only Fairtrade organic cola. Supported by Kiwi-based parent company All Good Organics, Karma Cola are on a mission to prove that a product as commercially popular as a cola can be a vehicle for positive change in the world, without compromising on consumers expectations on taste.

With high profile stockists including Waitrose, Ocado and Selfridges, Karma Cola have sold an estimated 600k bottles in the UK since launch in 2014 with sales forecast to double in 2016. We meet with co-founder Simon Coley, to hear how they use design and long-form storytelling to create a brand to be discovered rather than broadcast.

What was the inspiration for Karma Cola?

The world consumes 2 billion cola branded drinks a day, yet not many people know where the cola in our drinks comes from. We had this idea that we could source organic, natural cola from West Africa where it originates and would make a drink that would be made from real ingredients and would give back to the growers.

So we discovered we could get cola from a little village in Sierra Leone called Boma and they sent us a few kilograms of cola nuts and made we our first drink. We then sent some bottles back to them and six months later we sent them a cheque for the first amount of money we were able to generate from the sales of the drinks.

In terms of the name, I was playing with this idea of demonstrating this virtuous circle and what we are trying to achieve to our customers. Karma popped out of that. What goes around comes around. This is about showing that something as commercial as a fizzy drink can be a force for good, and that we can use a well known commercial transaction to support everyone in the supply chain. 

What is some of the good that Karma Cola does as a company?

Three pence from every bottle sold goes back to the people that grow cola in Boma and the surrounding villages in Sierra Leone. We’ve established the Karma Cola Foundation to manage that money and support these villages and its governed by a few simple principles. The one that resonates the most is that they choose what the money is spent on. As long as it delivers them long-term economic independence, which is what we are trying to achieve for them, they can make the choice – we don’t pretend to know what’s best for them.

Typically, it goes into projects like infrastructure and education. We’ve enabled teacher’s salaries to be paid so that sixty young girls have been able to go to school all the way through to tier three education.

When the Ebola crisis was in full swing, we diverted some funds to help with education around sanitisation for prevention, and miraculously because of the support they have got from us and from other aid organisations no one there has been infected.

They were surprised when they got the cheque from our first lot of sales, up until then they’d just heard that these people from New Zealand wanted some cola nuts. They chose to use the funds to build a bridge between the old and the new village, so when we finally got to see them in person they really celebrated our arrival and we walked across the bridge with them.

How are you encouraging trial?

You have a very short time to catch someone’s attention – I think it’s like 0.3 of a second. So the only real way you can disrupt that experience of viewing a shelf of products that you probably already know, is to do something very different.

We’ve shown a complicated illustration, it’s not a simple emblem. It’s an artist’s impression of a character in Sierra Leone, called Mami Wata, who lives in the river who brings good luck and bad luck to the people in the village. And she is a sort spiritual guidance for the village that we get the cola from.

She is a rascal that she plays tricks on people but she also brings good fortune. We quite like the idea of it being both good and bad, in that there is a nice dynamic in that story that we can play on. We find it attracts people and if they like what they see they’re more likely to taste what’s inside.

It’s a big risk – ‘cola’ is written upside down and it’s not written that large. I don’t think anyone would recommend you brand a bottle of soft drink that way. But it worked for us and it has engaged people because it is different. It encourages a curiosity I think.

How do you choose what to communicate?

We have stories about the ingredients, about the people involved in growing them, the foundation and how it supports those communities, we’ve got stories about connecting creatively with people. There is so much we could say that it is hard to choose what to say.

Our approach has been to engage by visual storytelling and let people discover us for themselves. The way I like to think about it is we get people to notice us by looking good, if the bottle looks great then the design has done it’s job and at least someone is going to reach out and try it.

If people try us and like the taste – and they do, then we have their permission to tell them more, and that’s when we get the chance to tell then about the good work we do as a result of them buying our drinks.

What led you to create the ‘What goes around’ zine?

Most of what we’re competing with bombards people with adverts, messages, stunts and all the ways you get attention in modern media. I thought given that we’re sold in restaurants and cafes and in a whole lot of places where people like to take their care and the time, that perhaps we could compliment that by giving them something that shows the care we’ve taken in producing what we produce.

So we’ve created our fanzine, ‘What Goes Around Comes Around’, in order to tell people the long story about what we’re doing and give them an insight in to the lives of the people we’re supporting. We then use our distribution network that deliver the drinks to deliver the magazines as well. If people have got the time and they’re interested in what we’re doing then they share the stories. It’s our answer to social media.

Why is it important to you that the brand is discovered not broadcast?

When people discover something they have a sense of ownership, it’s really important to us that we engage at that level. If they have that experience where they feel we haven’t forced this down their throats, they understand that there’s a level of care involved in the relationship. We think it’s respectful and we find that people will often go out of their way to help us.

These also aren’t fast stories to tell, its hard to get everything across in a few seconds, and like any relationship it takes time to earn the respect and trust an affection for someone. So blurting everything out at the first opportunity really doesn’t impress anyone anyway.

Instead we give them a reason to gradually find out more and have a relationship with us, it’s just more enduring.

Transparency has become such a competitive advantage for challengers in recent years, what was this a reaction to? And how are Karma Cola being transparent in a category known for being opaque?

People are feeling duped by larger corporations. We’ve been doing some work with Bloomberg, who had an inaugural business conference in London a few months ago. There was an underlying theme coming out of that conference that there is a consumer distrust of large organisations that don’t feel obliged to show what goes on behind their products and services.

So we think counter to that, we have to be transparent. If we make these claims about our own ethics, we have to make them easy for people to understand and totally accessible.

So we present them that way. We don’t have a secret recipe, we make it very obvious to people. It’s also in some magazines that we produce. People appreciate us telling and showing them what goes in the drinks. We have taken photographs all the ingredients so that it is visible to see what they are consuming.

The ‘drink no evil’ strap line speaks to the fact that we are transparent in a way we procure ingredients, come up with flavours, and then make them available for people.

42 Below, Air New Zealand, Lewis Road Creamery and now Karma Cola. What has made New Zealand such fertile ground for producing successful challenger brands?

Because of the great distance and the small population in New Zealand you have to figure out how to do things yourself. Not knowing your limitations is a real advantage.

There’s also an enthusiasm for these things. We do have a really good creative community in New Zealand that’s always evolving. So there’s a confidence there and there’s also a supportive network of people across the world who want these sorts of challenging projects to be successful.


Simon Coley’s advice for a challenger brand:

  • Your brand values define who you are as an organisation – keep them front and centre.
  • Work with people who share your values and purpose – you’ll have better outcomes.
  • It takes a long time to be an overnight success – although people think we’re new to the UK we’ve been working on the idea for the last seven years. You need to be methodical and put in the effort to make an idea succeed.

This story originally appeared on The Challenger Project.

Research team: The people behind The Challenger Project, eatbigfish, are the leading experts in challenger brands.

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