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Charity coffee aims for a richer blend

INSIDE BUSINESS Marketing: can you be caring and commercially correct? Helen Jones reports
"RICHER, mellower and distinctly less bitter." Cafedirect is not just talking about the taste of its coffee brand, but also the Latin American and African farmers who grow the beans.

The company, backed by the charities Oxfam, Traidcraft, Twin Trading, and Equal Exchange Trading is this autumn running its first advertising campaign in women's magazines, including Elle and Marie Claire. It will focus not only on how consumers can help impoverished coffee growers, but also on the quality of the product. The campaign, created by the advertising agency Leo Burnett, is part of a marketing strategy to reposition Cafedirect as a mainstream brand, widen its consumer base, and make consumers aware of the plight of coffee growers in the developing world.

Although sold in all leading supermarket chains, including Safeway, Tesco and J Sainsbury, Cafedirect is synonymous with the ubiquitous Oxfam catalogues that fall from Sunday supplements. The brand started life in 1991, when it was available only through mail order. But gradually, by word of mouth recommendation and support from church organisations that began selling the product, sales began to rise and the supermarkets took notice.

Cafedirect's selling point is that it guarantees to pay farm co-operatives a minimum of 10 per cent above the world coffee price for their produce and to ship the product directly to the UK, where it is marketed. The farmers use the money they receive to benefit their communities and provide health care and education. The long-term basis of Cafedirect's relationship means farmers can make plans for the future rather than survive from one harvest to the next.

Cafedirect's products have all been awarded a Fairtrade Mark by Third World development organisations. This informs consumers that any product bearing the Fairtrade symbol cares for its workers - although it is not only small charitable organisations that are allowed to use the symbol. Typhoo Tea, which is owned by Premier Brands, has also been awarded one.

Cafedirect's sales director, Lorna Young, says that because of its heritage the Cafedirect brand is saddled with a "right-on image". "When we launched the product, it was people who supported the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and believed in the anti-apartheid movement that bought it, but now the situation in both Nicaragua and South Africa has changed," she says.

Ms Young maintains that the traditional consumer base for the product - the politically aware and church groups that sell Cafedirect to their members - is still important. But she faces a classic marketing dilemma - how to move the brand on and attract new consumers without alienating its core market.

"Through the advertising campaign we are now targeting "semi-ethical" women. These are people who are reasonably interested in green and world issues and feel that they want to do the right thing, but only if it is not too difficult or too painful for them."

To this end, says Ms Young, Cafedirect is focusing on the quality of the product. "We give the farmers advice on quality control, and they use traditional techniques to make sure that it is a really good product."

She says: "It's no good persuading new consumers to try it if it tastes really horrible, because they will not buy it again. That initial feeling of goodwill is destroyed, and we will not get the repeat purchases which we need."

Ms Young adds that the company is now looking at other products that it could sell. "We are just starting to dip our toes into the catering market at the moment, which is huge for coffee in the UK. But we are also looking at introducing decaffeinated coffee and possibly coffee-related products."

Cafedirect says that it has received invaluable advice and support from a surprising source - the supermarkets. "Some of them were very enthusiastic and tolerant and advised us on all sorts of things, like presentation and distribution. They are now taking our full product range," Ms Young says.

With the supermarkets - which are not known for sympathetic largesse - on Cafedirect's side, it only remains to be seen whether the general public will prove to be equally as enthusiastic about the product.