We’re living through strange times, but as lockdown continues we’d like to share a reminder of when work and life was normal. Get your suitcase out, we’re heading to Colombia.
If you want to understand your client’s products and customers better, it’s a good idea to visit their shop. The shop might actually be a shop, but it might be a South American coffee farm. I recently had the pleasure of an ‘origin trip’ with my client, a multinational agribusiness. On the ground, swapping my copywriter’s hat for my journalist’s one, I found no shortage of great stories. But would the marketing team feel comfortable using them?
Big money, hard lives
The first meeting. The marketing director, head of corporate comms and I sat in a small room high above London. Sun glinting off glass. People and traffic moving below like bugs. I feel it’s polite not to name the company because the project is ongoing, so let’s call them Coffee Corp. They source coffee from all over the world and ship it to roasters big and small. I was excited, sensing interesting work ahead.
The coffee industry is worth almost half a trillion dollars, but most coffee is grown by farmers with just a few hectares of land. It’s a hard life. Prices are low and many farms go bust. Coffee Corp is constantly looking for ways to help farmers earn a decent living. If farmers turn away from coffee, to grow other crops or become Uber drivers, agribusinesses will have nothing to sell. It’s this grassroots work Coffee Corp wanted me to write about.
I put together a proposal and the job moved ahead. At end of the kick-off call the marketing director popped the question.
‘Do you want to go to Colombia? We’re running a press trip. You can meet the farmers and hear their stories directly. What do you reckon?’
A fortnight later I was on the plane to join a small group of journalists in Bogota.
Plunging into a new world
Our immersion in coffee began with a tasting session. Clipboards in hand, we tried eight speciality coffees. With qualified tasters, known as Q-graders, in the group much of the chat went billowing over my head like blasts from a steam wand. While these super-humans marshalled their tastebuds to distinguish between acetic, butyric and isovaleric acid, I wrote words like ‘strong’ and ‘fruity’. But hey, there’s no wrong answer.
Over the following days we visited six farms and a coffee mill. We tasted exotic coffees, including an unwashed geisha, and tied baskets to our waists to have a go at picking coffee ourselves (with woeful results). Although we were undoubtedly meeting a carefully curated group of farmers, I was thrilled at what compelling tales they had to tell.
Businesspeople are people too
Back in my studio in Somerset I struggled to choose between the stories I’d heard. So, I went beyond the brief and wrote two versions. The first was about a farmer who had saved his business from bankruptcy; creating a high-altitude paradise packed with native trees where premium-grade coffee grows pesticide free.
The second was based on a Q&A with Coffee Corp’s agronomist. He helps farmers shift from traditional practices—clearing virgin forest, burning rubbish, overuse of fertiliser—to embrace sustainable methods. I recorded the interview on my phone during a bumpy minibus ride along unpaved roads. Despite the background noise, the agronomist’s passion came across loud and clear. I realised this narrative-driven approach was a long-haul departure from anything Coffee Corp had done before, but, crucially, it had been agreed. Drafts complete, I pressed send.
Detailed feedback followed. The stories were too long, too personal. The client wanted more numbers and facts. Less, well, story. I argued that the audience, most likely suffering from data fatigue, would find this approach refreshing. I’d done my research. Coffee Corp’s rivals’ marketing was unremarkable. I could smell competitive advantage like it had been roasted and ground in front of me.
That really is lovely teamwork
As so often, compromise was the way forward. I wrote a new, shorter story, sprinkled in extra numbers and the client was happy. The copy we have now is unrecognisable from the original text I was shown in that 12th-floor meeting room. And thanks to the thoroughness of our collaboration, we have a robust template for writing about Coffee Corp’s work in other countries.
So, did I need to fly half way around the world to write about coffee farmers? No, in a word. I could have done it without leaving the West Country. But, talking to the cafeteros on their own terroir lent the copy an authenticity that would have been hard to achieve otherwise.
There are many origins still to explore. But, wherever we go next, I can honestly say Coffee Corp and I have left the corporate comfort zone for good.
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