IMPACT | VEGA COFFEE

Disrupting the coffee supply chain to reclaim income justice for growers.

A bold coffee newcomer needs a bold go-to-market strategy

 
 

Vega Coffee is a social enterprise that sources and buys specialty beans from smallholder farmers in Nicaragua and Colombia, and partners with them to roast, package, and ship their own coffee direct to consumers in the U.S. By keeping the process in-country, these marginalized farming communities realize a 4x increase in income. A huge deal, considering they live in extreme poverty. Vega’s model can scale to absorb almost infinite demand. But it’s no small feat to break through the crowded coffee market. They needed a voice powerful enough to drown out myriad competition. And the internal structure to support their future growth.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
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INTRODUCTION

Connecting coffee lovers and farmers

 
 

Vega was birthed in 2014 from a friendship between co-founder Rob Terenzi and a Nicaraguan coffee growing family. While living at origin, Rob witnessed the great amount of work it takes to grow, harvest, and get green coffee beans to market. He saw how little farmers were paid, often less than the hard costs of growing. And he noted their smallholder status and remote location hindered them from advocating for a fair price. The global coffee industry is worth $100 billion. Yet these farmers were earning an inequitable $1 per pound of beans.

It was also true that American customers were at the tail end of a lengthy and laborious supply chain. One that starts with farmers sending their beans down mountains on the backs of burros, then passes through countless middlemen who merely get it to the U.S. so even more intermediaries can roast, package, and distribute the coffee. It’s an inefficient and outdated system with unnecessary costs compounded along the way. A holdover tradition from the age of the steamship where months of journeying would render roasted beans too stale to drink. Nevertheless, it remains – even as information and transportation move products across the world in matter of seconds and hours.

So Vega’s model is almost stunning in its simplicity. Roast and package at origin, right where it’s grown. Send the freshly roasted coffee direct to consumers, unencumbered by go-betweens. Cut out the unnecessary markups and days spent in cargo containers and warehouse lots. Pay the farmers a higher wage so they can educate their children, afford healthcare, improve their own futures. And all the while, curb the ecological crisis wrought by cheap farming practices that strip the land and decrease coffee quality in order to lower costs.

Best of all, the model is almost infinitely scalable to farming communities across the globe. Develop relationships on the ground. Build high-quality roasting facilities. Train members of the community (mostly women) to cup, score, roast, and package their coffee. Create a higher quality of life for growers and cup of coffee for consumers. Plus the model holds up beyond coffee – with the value-added work easily fitting growers of other agricultural products.

 
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SITUATION

Thirsty to scale

 
 

Vega had realized steady year-over-year growth and caught the eye of savvy investors like Mercy Corps and Village Capital. They boasted established operations in Nicaragua and Colombia and were building a talented team. What they needed was more customers. And not just an incremental increase, but a true spike in demand. The kind of demand generated by larger B2B purchasers.

The team had already forged pilot partnerships with university foodservice providers and premium beverage packagers like Simple Harvest. Their growth was accelerating, but their internal processes and structure hadn’t yet caught up. Communications were stalling, roles and responsibilities murky, and priorities getting lost among the demands of the day. To continue securing funding, they would need a well-oiled machine powering their model. Ultimately, this small but scrappy team with a huge vision and high potential model needed to mature. Like any small business on the cusp, they had to move from reactive to proactive.

A crowded market
How does a newcomer to the coffee market break through innumerable competitors? And how can a startup – already fighting the complexities of integrating impact into a business model – make any noise?

Coffee culture is firmly entrenched in the western world, which means every consumption style, price point, taste preference, and buying method is covered. The Fair Trade, specialty coffee, and mail-order subscription segments are jammed with competition. And high-end purveyors have already made inroads with foodservice distributors.

Without millions to spend on mass-market advertising, it would be difficult to make the Vega brand stand out to consumers in a big way. And once captured, there’s the additional need to turn them into long-term loyal buyers who like the taste, service, and convenience of Vega as much as their impact story.

Unsupported B2B sales
Vega knew B2B coffee sales could provide a steady and viable income stream. But this sales process isn’t nearly as straightforward as a simple ecommerce play. It takes time and a certain skill set to cultivate leads, understand buying cycles, develop contract terms, and build relationships with distributors. It’s a longer and more complicated affair. And it often requires specialized tools to support salespeople and ensure a future sales force can scale.

Vega started dipping their toes into the water of B2B sales, and knew they needed to invest in a full-time, fully-focused sales team. But for that team to be successful, they’d need the infrastructure to support them.

 
 
 
 

ACTIONS

A strong brand and strategy brew

 
 

Positioning
Entrepreneurs have vision. But all too often it exists in intangible form – unstated, undocumented, or both. It’s our job to help them articulate it and get it on paper so it can be worked against and, hopefully one day, fully realized.

Our brand strategy work really kicked into gear when we honed in on the team’s true and unwavering vision. It’s a bold one, invigoratingly so. Beyond coffee, they dream of a world where people can buy any agricultural products direct from the source — anytime, anywhere. And when this occurs, power is returned to the hands of both growers and customers.

This exciting vision was a critical starting point. And we knew it was on us to craft a brand and marketing strategy that would put Vega on the path to carrying out their dream. We immersed ourselves into the history of the coffee industry, past and present market trends, and the complexities of today’s global trade. It was our job to become as rooted in the industry as possible. So we scoured history books, industry white papers, and even archives of decades-old coffee advertisements. This primary and secondary research proved important for our framing Vega in the larger industry and crafting our ultimate recommendations.

Once we came up for air, we looked onto the current horizon – scoping out the landscape of coffee brands and consumer trends. We analyzed competitors, from mainstream specialty companies to other Fair Trade and roasted-at-origin organizations. The insights we gleaned yielded three key brand strategy insights.

First, Vega has the quality and service to appeal to a broad audience – not just those who care about ethical consumption. With hundreds of options available – even those claiming fair and ethical trade – it’s crucial for the Vega brand to tell the story of impact without fully leaning on it to cultivate lifelong customers. The product, service, pricing, and outward-facing brand needed to be as engaging and appealing as any competitor in the segment.

Second, Vega’s streamlined supply chain makes it a perfect candidate for adopting the direct-to-consumer model assumed by popular brands like Away, Dollar Shave Club, and Warby Parker. Vega enables customers to buy a strikingly high-quality coffee bean without the traditional markup. Even better: despite the sea of options, there’s not a single coffee company currently positioned as a D2C brand.

And lastly, there are plenty of brand tropes in the vast sea of coffee brands. From the exclusivity signaled by Blue Bottle and Intelligentsia to the earthy and emotionally evocative imagery of coffee farmers used by plenty of others – Vega had to channel its rule-breaking boldness into a personality that could stand out. Playful cartoons, whimsical illustrations, and standard “dirt-roughened hands picking red coffee beans” wouldn’t cut it.

Through our archetype work, we identified the Rebel as the perfect fit for Vega. Not an anarchist, destructive, angry rebel. But an iconoclast that’s not afraid to boldly break rules in order to revolutionize a system that’s inherently broken. It’s a personality that would certainly differentiate. But just as importantly, it would reflect the commitment and passion of the founders and team. Through this recommendation, we encouraged Vega to not shy away from their worldview. And to shift their marketing voice, tone, and imagery to follow suit. 

Go-to-market strategy
With these key insights as our starting point, we then crafted a strategy to push this personality out into the world and minds of consumers. We mapped strategies against central objectives to:

  • Drive new B2C acquisitions: prove marketplace demand and accelerate its growth.

  • Build brand affinity and loyalty: increase the average lifetime value of customers.

  • Convert B2B leads: arm the sales team with tools needed to efficiently and effectively attract, engage, and close.

  • Set the stage for more investments: demonstrate measurable predictability, consistency, and scalability with KPIs.

We made technical recommendations for improving email conversion rates and outlined user experience updates to their ecomm platform. We analyzed the effectiveness of each of their marketing tools in driving visitors and sales. And we went deep into social feeds to analyze voice, tone, and engagement.

Beyond all this we crafted personality-aligned, multi-channel creative campaigns to engage customers with the brand in ways that would start to push an impact-focused coffee social enterprise into the mainstream. We channeled the Rebel archetype and their passion for social justice into campaigns that asked customers to “get woke up” and positioned Vega Coffee as “fuel for the resistance.” Some of the campaigns were education focused, bent on teaching people about the inequitable supply chain. Others used real-life social cause rebels to highlight Vega’s value props.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

"Two things really stand out about our work with Mighty Ally. First, they helped create and implement a solid plan for our business to function more efficiently and effectively. Second, they understood our ambition, articulated it clearly, and designed a mind-blowing strategy for how to get there. Then they laid the road in a way that was fully actionable and in line with our own values and goals."

– ROB TERENZI, VEGA CO-FOUNDER

 
 
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Sales enablement
Along with developing a strong B2C base, it was clear that further impact could be generated if they could simultaneously break into the B2B space. And Vega smartly had their sights set on college campuses. There are hundreds of campuses around the country already adopting Fair Trade standards when sourcing university foodservice items, and Vega Coffee would be a perfect fit.

The impending scaleup of their B2B sales team would demand a streamlined sales process and supporting infrastructure so they could hit the ground running. Starting with the basics: a CRM to capture and track leads plus accurately map sales cycles. We researched various options, prescribing a platform that would be manageable in the short-term with a small team, but could scale as Vega expanded.

We led the integration of the CRM into their various existing platforms and channels, developing lists and organizing data with an eye towards creating a solution that would be sustainable with growth. With this central repository, Vega could make the most of all interactions with potential, new, and ongoing customers. They could create informed segments to push relevant targeting efforts. And importantly – as the company matured – they could reasonably anticipate their sales pipeline and even base financial projections and inventory needs off upcoming deals.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

"We couldn't ask for a better partner than Mighty Ally. From day one they were like a part of our team, steadfastly dedicated to our success rather than being one-step-removed consultants. They rolled up their sleeves alongside us, dove deep into our issues, and provided invaluable insights that continue to guide our work every single day."

– NOUSHIN KETABI, VEGA CO-FOUNDER 

 
 
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RESULTS

Fueling positive change for farmers

 
 

This case study details a combination of activities and deliverables you’d expect from any strategic consultancy or marketing agency. Hours of research, competitor analysis, workshops, and deep discussion went into our partnership with Vega Coffee. Hundreds of slides and pages of notes were scrawled to formulate customer segments, KPIs, and some bold creative campaign ideas.

But ultimately, this work was undertaken to drive substantial and sustainable change. Change that reaches and permeates morning routines, afternoon breaks, and study sessions across the U.S. With each brewed cup an incremental step towards fixing a broken supply chain, confronting extreme poverty in coffee regions, and giving each farming family the access they deserve to health, education, and wellbeing.

 

102%

GROWTH IN web SALES

 
 

20

FULL-TIME JOBS CREATED IN NICARAGUA

 
 

$450,000

INVESTMENT SECURED

 
 

60k lbs/year

SIGNED IN A NEW WHOLESALE ACCOUNT