Marketing Miracles

Sustainability in the coffee category has become a sort of “greens fee.” You get the pun. Look around and one can see a mix of innovative businesses that are out front mixing with “first move” and “follower brands” all equally telling stories about their environmental goodness and why it is important for a multitude of stakeholders to pay attention to these altruistic deeds. Many go beyond only focusing on something generally good for the environment to pursue sustainable policies that are specifically fair trade, bird friendly, shade grown, and soil-friendly, among many others.

In marketing, these activities often fall into the classification of issues management, content marketing, thought leadership, building corporate image or reputation, and connecting with consumers all for the goal of driving better business results. But for some companies, these practices are woven into the very corporate cultural tapestry of their values and behaviors of leadership, no matter what the business results may be. There are indeed businesses in our category doing the right thing, not because it will make them a buck, but because they believe in the governing paradigm of doing what is right.

However, it is not always this way. I can remember a CEO who had the best of intentions and was the personification of a successful businessman, but he could not figure out why we would sell coffee from a particular region just because it helped migratory fowl. He said that the consumer would never care about bird issues in South America, and we would never sell coffee that was bird friendly, organic, sustainable, or stood for the prevention of deforestation.

After much internal debate, he then agreed to sell this coffee when he learned of the bird’s migratory pattern – they rested in land and flew a pattern over the very state where his coffee was sold. So, even though it was sourced from a region that he should have cared about, but did not, the region that mattered the most to him was the one where the coffee was sold and not where it originated.

The metric of success that he always used for this program was how many bags of this coffee were sold, not that it was a good thing to help the land, animals, and people from where the very beans of this coffee had been grown. It was his way of knowing that the consumer cared enough to buy this sourced coffee.

The point was not the consumer purchase as the action to reveal that they cared. The point was that the coffee company buying this green coffee cared, and in doing so, made a statement about its leadership style and its own values. In the end, there was a great deal of caring for this issue.

[pullquote align=”right”]”He said that the consumer would never care about bird issues in South America, and we would never sell coffee that was bird friendly, organic, sustainable, or stood for the prevention of deforestation.”[/pullquote]Starbucks is under a lot of criticism for the recent announcement that the company would help defray the cost of some college tuition for its employees. The program may not be perfect, but at a time when the nation is in deep conversation about the rising cost of college tuition and mounting student debt, here is a company that acted. And with that action, it never tied, at least not yet, a specific product to the education program. Sure, I get the intention and implied link between goodwill and building brand preference, but this was classic leadership in execution.

Between these two coffee companies, what kind of leadership is on display? What are the important dimensions of leadership? A mentor of mine worked for every manner of leader in the world and distilled his thoughts to many of the following elements of leadership. He was the type of leader that we wanted to follow, and not because he told us to, but rather because we were better personally as a result.

Below I distill what we observe as the behavioral elements most common in effective leadership. I have added some of my own elements based on recent experiences with people and organizations that I admire.

Mike Dabadie is the founder of Heart+Mind Strategies, LLC, a research consultancy that continues to pioneer the use of personal-values insights and marketing. He can be reached at

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