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Sustainable Harvest has a story to tell

From the February 2015 issue.

Sustainable Harvest’s Founder David Griswold tells GCR Magazine how he's redefining the role of the green bean trader by building a business around his passion for storytelling.

When the team at Sustainable Harvest sits down for their weekly catch-ups, they begin the meeting in a rather unusual way.

Each week, one staff member is assigned the task of telling a story. Usually, it’s about a person they met or a problem they were able to solve; an anecdote to remind them all about why they do the work they do.

A fly sitting on the wall of these meetings would be particularly impressed with the staff’s seemingly natural talent at recounting emotional tales. In just a few minutes, the storyteller helps the group forget profit and loss sheets, looming deadlines, or long lists of unanswered emails. The group is transported to a different time and place, and reminded about the thousands of people whose lives sit in the hands of coffee traders like themselves.  

Joel ben Izzy knows the power of a story better than most. Ben Izzy holds the remarkable title of Professional Storyteller and Storytelling Consultant. He graduated from Stanford University in 1983 with a self-designed degree in storytelling. He travelled the world telling stories at schools, before finding niche consulting work at major Los Angeles law firms, teaching lawyers how to use storytelling to win over juries. Over the years he’s worked with major organisations including Hewlett Packard, the Federal Reserve bank, and Pixar Animation.

Ben Izzy can also be credited for Sustainable Harvest’s staff’s storytelling talent. Ben Izzy has trained the company’s head office staff, its farmers, and even major clients like Keurig Green Mountain, in the art of storytelling since 2008.

“In the coffee industry, stories are like low-hanging fruit. When people are off travelling to places like Kenya, they have all these amazing adventures… But people don’t generally stop to reflect on the stories. They’re thinking about the harvest they are going to check on, or the coffee they need to source,” says Ben Izzy. “A great story is something that catches our interest and makes us care. There’s usually a problem that’s resolved. The world of coffee is filled with these stories because it’s filled with problems. The line on the books [of a coffee trader] is food for someone’s family.”

Ben Izzy has found a kindred spirit in working with Sustainable Harvest’s Founder David Griswold to capitalise on the power of storytelling. Griswold, a trained journalist, admits that he has a near obsession with documenting everything he comes across. He started off his career in the late 1980s working in Africa on a fellowship to study elite athletes. This led to his first job as a sports journalist for Runner Magazine, writing profiles about long-distance runners. It was this exposure to the conditions in developing countries that led to Griswold’s early ideas about how the power of stories might be able to improve people’s lives.

“Early on, I was thinking I could promote the stories of these athletes in Africa, and help them get better shoe contracts,” he says. “African runners don’t get deals even close to runners from the United States or Canada. It has a lot to do with how people are perceived from different countries. There are a lot of nefarious middlemen out there taking advantage of people.”

It was through working in coffee, however, that Griswold found his calling in changing the role of that “nefarious” middleman. How this came about is a story Griswold has recounted perhaps hundreds of times, that ben Izzy helped him craft. It’s a story that follows a tested protocol known by writers as the ‘Hero’s Journey’.

Griswold explains how he got into the coffee business as a protagonist in his own true story of starting out as a volunteer to assist coffee farmers in Mexico as a naive youth in the early 1990s. There he meets a fellow hero in distress – a poor coffee farmer who comes to Griswold because he can’t get his coffee in the hands of global buyers. The story recounts the moment that Griswold found his calling in life, inspiring him to start a company that would help farmers around the globe sell their coffee more transparently to roasters and retailers.

The beautiful, simple, story can be delivered in a few minutes, delivering a strong message about what Sustainable Harvest is about. 

It’s how Griswold has used the power of story as a driving force of his business, however, that’s a powerful message in itself, changing the nature of coffee trading that has traditionally been about keeping parties apart.

“When I was starting the company, I was really interested in high quality videos and photos. It was a better way to connect coffee growers and buyers. It was always part of what I wanted to do when I travelled to origin,” says Griswold. “Twenty years ago I was getting a lot of questions about why I was collecting all this grower information. It wasn’t what people did.” 

Griswold says it wasn’t such a conscious decision to use stories and content so centrally in his business model. Rather, he was just following his personal interests.

“I formulated this company around what I like to do. I’ve always been a documentarian. I love to capture information. In the 1990s, I would lug around this huge video camera, taking it into the field with me,” he says.

From when he started the business through to today, Griswold will often start his meetings with a video. While he’s been able to upgrade from VHS to digital, he says video has stayed a central part of how he communicates with clients.

“When someone does a good job of really capturing something on video, telling a story with good audio and music, people can forget where they are and be transported to another time and place,” he says. “When you’re in sales, it can take you so long to perhaps never communicate what you need to. Sometimes if you start a presentation with a short video, you can communicate what you need to in just a few minutes, and the client can see it for themselves.”

Looking back, Griswold says he was always hoping that the coffee industry would become more concerned with farmer stories, videos and photos about travelling to origin and meeting with coffee farmers. “The idea was to bring coffee to the table, but coffee with a story,” he says. “That was what we started 25 years ago. I’m excited to see that it’s now becoming mainstream. People are starting to see the value in it.”

Indeed, blogs about roasters travelling to origin are now common practice in the industry. Italian Coffee Maker Illy took it one step further with a full-length documentary A Small Section of the World in December 2014, with Adweek supposing that it could be the first branded documentary to bring home an Oscar.

Although Griswold may not be up for an Oscar, he has only continued to build upon his fascination with content and storytelling. Perhaps tired of lugging his camera around to help roasters better understand farmers and vice versa, in 2003 Sustainable hosted the first Let’s Talk Coffee conference. The conference brought together roasters and farmers, as well as finance organisations and other not-for-profits, to share their stories in person.

“If video is a one-way communications medium, then Let’s Talk Coffee is two-way,” he says. “The reason we did Let’s Talk Coffee was because I think people should do business face-to-face.”

From this first conference, Griswold hired a video crew to capture the presentations, as well as the interactions between his roaster clients and the farmers.

From early on, Griswold’s storytelling efforts have been a two-way street. He remembers in 1996 putting together materials for farmers, communicating information about the clients the farmers were selling to.

“I had these place mats featuring [Keurig Green Mountain coffee buyer] Lindsey Bolger answering questions like: ‘Why do you like Guatemalan coffee?’ and ‘What’s your favourite food’? I was producing a lot of content for producers. The idea was that if producers could see where their coffee was going, they could take some pride of ownership. It helps build loyalty in the relationship,” says Griswold.    

Griswold doesn’t necessarily see what he’s doing as marketing work. He says that marketing is just about selling products, but telling stories is more than that. The company rebranded its marketing department as a “Story Team” and it focuses on gathering, curating and communicating content. Across the business, Griswold says the majority of his staff that span dozens of countries are Liberal Arts students that he’s trained in coffee.

“I’ve built my coffee trading company around staff that are multilingual and have well-rounded university educations, but we had to teach them the specific skills needed for coffee trading, such as cupping or price risk management,” he says. “This has created a global team with incredible international collaboration across six offices. There is such diversity of thought, and so much input and perspective across many cultures. To gather content that is truly credible, it takes local insights. It brings out an authenticity of story that goes beyond a public relations firm taking a quick trip to an origin country to bring back content.”

Griswold says that the company’s focus on storytelling is even built into its information technology (IT) systems. He adds that Apple founder Steve Jobs would sometimes use Sustainable Harvest as an example when presenting new software at MacWorld events. Apple featured Sustainable Harvest training its coffee farmer partners to use iPads to take photos of their farms and trace their coffee deliveries, as well as capture agronomy information and personal stories.

Griswold is a self-confessed “technology nut” and has taken his love of Apple products to the next level by having his technology team create a new Tastify app that began beta testing at the Let’s Talk Coffee global event in Panama in October 2014. Sustainable Harvest has been using iPads for the past four years to track its cupping scores in a cloud system it developed, which will be launched to the public through Tastify in early 2015. The app is the amalgamation of flavour information from coffee tastings, inspired by the popular music app Spotify and its concept “If you like this genre of taste, you might also like…”. Similarly, Tastify can recommend coffees based on the characteristics that a user likes..

From releasing apps, to holding conferences, Griswold says Sustainable Harvest has certainly trekked into some rather unusual territory for a green bean coffee trader: “People look at Sustainable Harvest and they might be confused at first,” he says. “Are we a non-profit development organisation for farmers? Do we run events? Do we sell green coffee? Are we a content company? The answer in some ways is yes to all of those. I really don’t see us as just a coffee importer, because we do so much more than that.”

If a company’s identity, however, is based on what brings in profits, then Sustainable Harvest is by far a green bean trader. Griswold admits that the events, apps and everything Sustainable Harvest does is funded by the green bean trading business. The company has achieved remarkable 40 per cent growth a year for the past 10 years, and was named on the Inc. 5000 list of fastest growing private companies in the US from 2008 – 2013.

More than just needing the funds from the green bean business to invest in these ventures and boost this growth, Griswold says he would struggle to engage people with his content if there wasn’t business to be made.

“The green bean trading business wouldn’t be as interesting or differentiated at Sustainable Harvest without Let’s Talk Coffee or Tastify,” he says. “With people’s schedules today, they don’t have time for just another conference. You have to do something really special to stand out.”

Because content has served as the building blocks of Griswold’s business, he struggles to label this work. Modern marketing theory, however, identifies Griswold’s activities as embracing today’s trends of content marketing.

Michele Linn is Vice President of Content for the Content Marketing Institute (CMI). She says that with so many new mediums of delivering information, producing engaging and relevant content is the key to creating a loyal audience base.

CMI defines content marketing as “a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly defined audience – and ultimately to drive profitable customer action.”

She says that last part is the key to what truly is content marketing.

“Just because a company uses content in their marketing, doesn’t make it content marketing,” she says. “It has to be a customer-focused and repeatable process.”

Linn confirms what Griswold has found – that content marketing helps create a loyal audience, and thus a consumer base. “If you produce content that answers people’s questions, it engenders trust and loyalty,” she says. “Marketers want to be a resource that people turn to for information. In some spaces, marketing is perceived negatively, but brands are now eager to provide useful, relevant content.”

Linn says the coffee industry is ideally placed to be working in this space: “There are a lot of social issues in coffee. Telling those stories can be a really powerful thing. People care about where their coffee comes from. Content marketing has its roots in great storytelling. There’s a real opportunity to tell stories and pull people in with those emotions.”

Griswold is now set to see if his story-focused business model will work on the other side of the planet, bringing Let’s Talk Coffee for the first time outside of a producing country to Melbourne, Australia in March this year. It’s a significant investment to be flying 20 producers to the remote consuming country, and to a market of just 23 million, less than one tenth the size of the United States.

With his eyes set on the sophisticated Australian coffee market, Griswold is hoping that these producers’ stories will win over enough local roasters.

“It seems like a great opportunity to try something different and see how our model is embraced. We’re just planning to bring a new type of content to add to MICE with Let’s Talk Coffee, introducing Australians to these fascinating stories and farmers. We hope to bring a new conference experience, where we build new relationships and have farmers deliver their own authentic and inspiring stories directly on stage. I hope it will fundamentally change how people trade coffee.” GCR

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