Scott Goodson speaks with the soul behind Karma Cola, Simon Coley about this fast growing international movement. Though it’s yet to hit US shores, Karma Cola’s steely resolve, cult-like, retro pop designs and hard core followers believe deeply in the brands eternal destiny: “What goes around comes around”. And it’s motto “Drink no evil.” Possibly not phrases that are often heard in the board rooms of the giant cola companies. Find out how these founding phrases help Karma Cola, the only Fairtrade organic cola, rise above the rest. Supported by Kiwi-based parent company All Good Organics, Karma Cola have sparked a movement with an idea that a commercially popular cola can positively change in the world, without compromising on attitude, the cool-factor or on taste. For more ideas on Uprising and movements, cultural movements and movement marketing, follow Uprising!!! on Facebook. We’ll continue to publish brand-new columns on a regular basis. Hey, do us a favor and please give Uprising!!! a review on iTunes. Scott Goodson is the author of best-selling book ‘Uprising: how to build a brand and change the world by sparking cultural movements,’ available on Amazon.com. Scott has helped create and build some of the world’s most iconic brands. He is founder of StrawberryFrog the world’s first movement marketing agency.
Uprising Interview transcript
Scott Goodson speaks with the soul behind Karma Cola, Simon Coley, about this fast growing international movement. Though it’s yet to hit US shores, Karma Cola’s steely resolve, cult-like retro pop designs and hard core followers believe deeply in the brand’s eternal destiny: “What goes around comes around.” And its motto “Drink no evil.” Possibly not phrases that are often heard in the board rooms of the giant cola companies. Find out how these founding phrases help Karma Cola, the only Fairtrade organic cola, rise above the rest. Supported by Kiwi-based parent company All Good Organics, Karma Cola have sparked a movement with an idea that a commercially popular cola can positively change in the world, without compromising on attitude, the cool-factor or on taste.
Scott: Welcome to the Uprising podcast. Today we’re talking with Simon Coley, founder of Karma Cola, which is a new movement to get the world to drink a new kind of fair trade, organic cola. The world drinks 1.9 billion coke drinks every day. But the African people who discovered cola don’t receive a penny from this obviously popular fizzy drink. So Karma Cola decided to do something about that, create a movement that inspires people to buy a bottle, Karma Cola, and the proceeds go back to the people who grow cola in their village in Sierra Leone. In addition to paying farmers a fair price, Karma Cola works directly with cola nut farmers and a village in Sierra Leone to help build their crops, their livelihoods, obviously that goes a long way in helping that part of the world become a more sustainable place for their communities and it’s good for everyone. How did you get this Karma Cola started?
Simon: Good question! About 10 years ago, two friends and I were thinking about what we would do next in our careers. On of them, Chris Morrison, had recently sold an organic drinks company that he had started when he was pioneering organics guy in New Zealand. And Matthew, his brother, had been working in the treasury department in New Zealand but was sort of looking for something to do next. And I had been working for a business in New Zealand called 42 Below that made vodka and branded itself on being clean and pure in New Zealand. And we’re all kind of thinking about the state of the world. Chris and I had recently been to a conference about climate change and what we would do as sort of leaders in the community to do something about that. Chris had recently been traveling in Samoa surfing and had discovered that there was a lot of produce there that wasn’t getting to market. And many years ago, New Zealand bought a lot of bananas from Samoa and paid something like 20% of the GDP. Samoa came from the sale of fresh bananas to other places in the Pacific. And we were thinking, perhaps we could do something to rebalance that. That we could bring in fresh organic produce from the island and sell it in New Zealand and help our neighbors. So we sort of started on these altruistic foundations that we thought there would be interest from people we knew in New Zealand that would buy these products. Then one thing led to another and we started bringing those bananas in the country, and we discovered really quickly we knew nothing about importing fresh produce. So we had to learn very quickly that if we were gonna be in business we needed to be a bit smarter and understand our supply chain a bit better. And we started driving these bananas and sending them to New Zealand packaged and that began a business that we called All Good. And we discovered that a lot of people in New Zealand actually wanted to buy fair trade and organic bananas. After we’d done that for a wee while, we thought, well this seems to be working. There’s obviously this latent demand by a certain type of customer for food and drink that has more going for it than just what you see on the supermarket shelf. And that perhaps we should explore that further.
Scott: Which came first, just as a question. Was it your desire to try to make the world a little better, or your desire to sell a new kind of cola?
Simon: I felt there were pretty much intertwined. I mean, the cola idea came out of that. We were thinking, well what do we do next? And obviously bananas aren’t very ? We really wanted something that would give us a lift on our business. But we also learned in looking around for our ideas that fact that you mentioned earlier on, there’s a lot of cola consumed in the world. And we didn’t really know where cola came from. So we looked around and discovered that in West Africa, cola originated. And the people that were in places like Sierra Leone weren’t really benefiting from a brand or series of products that were pretty well known throughout the world. Then we thought that a bit like the bananas, perhaps we could do something to balance that. So we were pretty naïve, and we started looking around and found that there was a person in Sierra Leone called Albert ? And we met, and he was able to find a place for us to sample some cola from. They sent 5 kilograms of it in the post. And we started experimenting with it and in a few weeks we had some recipes and a few hundred trials later, we came up with a recipe we thought tasted great and that we thought people would like. And we started bottling it. And about 6 months after we’d got the first sample cola, we sent a box back to the people in TY and ? village that supplied us with the ingredient. And they were quite surprised.
Scott: So, do you think your success and the growth of Karma has been related to your passion for trying to wrong a right? I mean, you discovered obviously the process that cola comes from Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone’s a company that’s had insurmountable problems over the years. Is this something that you felt like, wow this something that appeals to me as a human being. I wanna be a part of this. I wanna right this wrong. I wanna help them generate more revenues. Can you walk us through a little bit of that thinking?
Simon: Yeah. At first it was the challenge and the idea we thought, you know, is it possible? I mean, I’m asking that question kinda later to finding people that can make the product and stuff. But I don’t know that I understand where that would take us when we started but very soon I realized that it was possible. You know, people were interested in our story. Even when it was quite a young company. The idea of a product that did good in those ways was very appealing to enough people for us to sell a few drinks. But I guess the thing that I hadn’t considered was a responsibility that comes with that. So the first time we visited the villages after we sold a few thousand cases was realizing people were relying on us for their income. It was a proper trade relationship, and it was possible I guess the balance in that question is to bring together the desire to do something good, the desire to be a good citizen of the world, and to make some money in order to grow the business and to survive.
Scott: There is somewhat of an intuition that I think a certain generation has that tackling bigger issues rather than just generating profit makes sense, right? It may not be a strategic part of the immediate business plan, it may have been inherited the way you live your life. I do find that New Zealanders have a tendency of being more macro-aware of the world and the issues that people face beyond your national borders and other countries. So it’s probably just part of your DNA and your make-up and the thinking that right the wrong, do something, really be a part of something that is going to try to fix something out there. So I don’t wanna describe it as naïveté because I actually think it’s a business strategy, right? Because the less you know, the more courageous, more fearless you are. And I think success breeds success, and if I were to sit down and say to you, and go through all the reasons why starting Karma Cola would be a bad idea, you’d probably say, you know, that’s probably a bad idea. And then the world doesn’t move forward. So there’s something to be said for being blue-eyed and a little bit on the naïve side. So that’s also an advantage actually, to be from New Zealand. That’s cool. I’m from Canada, and Canadians have a little bit of that sort of naïveté as well.
Simon: One of our key employees is Canadian and he’s very similar. We have a bit of a United Nations in our office and—
Scott: Oh really? How do you manage that? How does that work?
Simon: It’s funny, I mean it’s pretty much been serendipity but we’ve got a German woman, a Swedish woman, a Canadian man, another is from Syria, Ukranian person, English, New Zealand, Australian and Romanian. So a pretty healthy representation.
Scott: I find international teams always come up with really great borderless ideas. Especially when you have people who can be conceptual and then you have the Swedes and the Germans to help organize everything. You’re based in the UK or are you based in New Zealand?
Simon: My family is in New Zealand and I’m there most of the time. But I always say because we’re expanding in the UK—and I’m here quite a few times a year—which is great for me. I quite enjoy being able to work across the world. But it has its challenges.
Scott: Certainly is a bit of a commute. I mean, I thought New York City to where I lived just outside of Manhattan was tough but you’ve got a pretty crazy commute there.
Simon: Yeah, unfortunately. It doesn’t happen quite as regularly as most commutes.
Scott: So, Karma Cola—I mean, great name by the way. Love the name. For a cola, that’s pretty awesome. What did you achieve to date?
Simon: We made the drink which, for me, was a pretty big achievement. I mean, just getting a product out there. Because I think with all of these endeavors, it’s often hard to start, but once you start, things start building. We’re in 2? Countries now which is testament to the story because there’s only a few of those countries that we’ve actively sought to built markets in. Many of them have come from inquiries from distributors or just interested parties. And they’ve been enthusiastic and energetic enough for us to think, well, we should support them because it would be a crime not to help these people do what they want to do with our product, too. So there’s something in the story that’s given us that kind of extra oomph. I guess measures our success. We pride ourselves a lot in the look, the style, the design of the packaging because we realized that’s a kind of a challenge to a brand. We’re not gonna be able to spend a hell of a lot on getting customer awareness outside of the real estate that we own like the bottle and some of their collateral, and we have some things like that. So we’ve put a lot of time into making the labels be as arresting as they can be, as we can make them.
Scott: And can you talk a little bit about that? About how you developed that and what the labels represent to you? And just the thinking behind that? Because they are really quite amazing.
Simon: Yeah, so on a can of cola label, the idea was that we would show the yin and yang that’s implied by Karma. That those two characters, the spirits which in that West African are kind of both faces of one entity. It’s drawn in a very funk interpretation of African art, so it’s quite charming I think, and doesn’t sound quite as gothic as drawing an angel and a devil on the label. And the world “cola” is upside-down and the word “cola” which I don’t even think is sensible graphic design on packaging and not half of many people put their brand name upside-down on their products, but it seems to work quite well in the context of what we’re doing.
Scott: Well I guess if you’re drinking it, right, I guess it depends if the bottle is up or down.
Simon: And I think it encourages you to read the image both ways.
Scott: Yeah, it’s kind of like writing the word “dog” on a cat. Makes you kind of scratch your head and go, what?
Simon: And that’s it, and challenging convention in that way and not being bold or thinking it’s worthwhile experimenting, well it gives you some, you know, it can take you to places that are pretty arresting. And fortunately for us, this one has had that intake. People do respond to us, it’s not just me saying it. But you know we get a lot of good feedback of people liking the label. And the philosophy is always, if we can catch people’s eyes then perhaps they’ll take it out and taste it And the next thing that has probably a good measure of our success is that the flavor does meet and exceed people’s expectations. That again from feedback, it tastes like cola. When people say that, you know, oh that’s pretty good. So the organic, fair trade drink that’s made of real ingredients. So if you look at all the ingredients that go in it it’s coriander and nutmeg and sugar and lemon juice and orange oils and limes, there’s a whole list of ingredients. But you could recognize all of them. And they’re all organic and I think you can taste those in the product itself, you really think about the flavors. They’re all in the finish. And that was really the challenge we gave ourselves. Could we make a great-tasting cola out of organic ingredients? And then the third thing that happens is if you kind of like the look of it and you like the taste of it, perhaps we’re doing the right thing, or we’ve encouraged people to read what’s on the back label. And that’s where you can discover where the cola came from. And that you actually just benefited the people who grew it by buying the drink because some of the proceeds are going back to them.
Scott: I love the Gingerella design. Somewhat of a homage to Jane Fonda. I guess the ginger does work well with ginger. It’s great. And the lemon-y dude. You definitely have a cast of characters here that you do a lot with. Very, very visually stunning. Talk a little bit about your motto. “Drink no evil.” Who is the evil and what are you telling people not to drink?
Simon: Yeah. It’s interesting, cuz it sort of came from me thinking, you know we’ve got 3 very different drinks there. And what kind of brings them together? And that idea that all of them have been produced with sustainable ingredients. And they kind of are fun enough for us to play that game with our customers that you know soft drinks aren’t essential. You know, no one needs to buy them. Like you need water for hydration. But we’re eating street food, salty hot food, you know, fish and chips or Chinese food or any other nationally. It’s quite nice to have a soft drink, a carbonated soda to wash it down. And if you’re one of those people who’s looking for those new experiences. Especially in street food you’ll find that people will spend some money on a gourmet burger or a really beautifully put together ? or a Cuban sandwich or a Korean roll. But you probably wanna complement it with something that has had the same care in its creation, like drinks. And I was thinking that it’s quite nice to contrast it and so, you know, drink label just sort of popped out of that. But it was a catchy enough idea that a drink could do good. And like I said, soda’s been sort of effervescent and not that important, so I thought that implied that maybe there was some good that came with it.
Scott: Well I think in the history of humanity, cola’s probably don’t rate up there in terms of great scientific changes in agriculture or technology, but they can in some ways offer subsistence farmers a little bit of additional revenue, and so I could definitely see that there’s a way that you’re helping to make it a little better. Also the ingredients are better for you, to compare your ingredients to standard cola ingredients. So there’s a benefit for the user, and there’s a metaphysical benefit for the user.
Simon: That was the thing that we learned in that early business, while it was still running. The idea behind banana importing which we called All Good was that we could be good for the environment and good for people, and as good for our customers as a fizzy drink could be. We never claimed that fizzy drinks were health drinks, but that if we could meet all those sorts of criteria, then we feel good about making it. Everyone wants to be involved in that process. And we feel good offering it to people.
Scott: How has the growth gone? So you’ve created your first devil and angel cola, and then you put it in the store and what happened? Did it actually fly off the shelves, or…?
Simon: People started buying it, that was the first thing that happened. And then we realized very quickly that we could be one drink in an array of many other choices. And if we actually wanted the business to succeed, we’d need to sell a few others. Especially since started in New Zealand selling to sort of premium café’s and restaurants. There’s usually a fridge that all the soft drinks are in, and for us to make enough money in this to carry on we needed to have a few more bottles of different flavors. So Gingerella came next. Chris had started his previous organic drinks business making ginger beer, so he’s had a lot of experience. So we started looking for fair trade ginger that we could get and we found some really great Asian ginger in Sri Lanka. And the recipe for Gingerella came from there. And she has a kind of style that’s very different to the can of cola bottle, like you were saying this kind of fire-y redhead. And the idea behind it was that we would give mother nature a bit of a makeover and turn her into this kind of action, admirable woman who’s in charge of her life and represent all those values. And she’s got a whole fan club of people that adopt her as a bit of an icon.
Scott: You can see some t-shirt, definitely.
Simon: She’s the most popular t-shirt, yeah.
Scott: She has a mixture of, like, Barbarella and Ginger Rogers from Gilligan’s Island. Sort of sexy, sassy, ginger-y, tasty. Do you become her if you drink Gingerella?
Simon: You might need to mix it a little bit to get that full effect, but yeah. There’s a lot of flavor in the drink.
Scott: So there could be a Karma cosmetic coming, or some sort of transformative liquid or beverage or something. That’s cool. Where are you available now? You’re not in the United States I don’t think, right? If I’m sitting in New York City, which I am right now, overlooking Madison Square Park, and I’m getting thirsty and I wanna drink this Gingerella, can I go and find one here or do I gotta…?
Simon: I’ve sent some to a friend in Boston, but not in the US yet, no. We’d love to but we’re really focusing on working at how we do a great job at distributing and selling into the UK and the European markets. But there were about 20 countries around the world. New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, and then all the other countries we’re in on the European continent.
Scott: Once you sold global hunger and famine, what’s next for humanity, you know? We’re facing huge IT challenges in terms of AI, artificial intelligence. Do you think that we’re gonna be able to move into that space? The real issues we all face?
Simon: It’s interesting, a few months ago I was in Sierra Leone where we get our cola from with the villagers we work with there. And the thing that happened to me was I found I couldn’t get a signal. So I didn’t have a device on me that worked for a week and a half. And it was fantastic. After I’d kind of gotten over the fact that I do check my iPhone every few minutes, and it felt like I’d sort of lost a limb, it felt really great. And I also learned a little bit about myself by watching how things work in that village. You know, everyone’s pretty well in tune with each other. There’s only maybe a few hundred people living in Barma, the village in Sierra Leone we worked with. Although we’re offering them a fund through the foundation we set up to support the development, they’re pretty good. They don’t have to have it. They live good lives, nowhere near as affluent as we are, but they have a very rich life in the way they treat each other. They can do with the help, and they’re sending children to school, especially young girls who otherwise wouldn’t get a chance to be educated. And we’re helping them develop secure supplies of food so they don’t go hungry. And developing little entrepreneurial programs so they can set up their own businesses. And we’re trying to figure out this other produce from the rainforest that they could use to develop other trade, so they become more economically independent. But I always thought, what technology do they need? And the kind of answer was maybe we’ve got a bit more to learn from them. And that, you know, the application of all this fantastic new development kind of needs that understanding of basic humanity. You know, I don’t know where we’re going with outsourcing our responsibilities, so that sort of things. I’m not sure that AI will solve the problem? Perhaps it will.
Scott: No it’s a huge issue, it’s a huge issue. We don’t have to go there, I was just kind of kidding.
Simon: It’s such a different view. Two days after then I was in LA on my way back to New Zealand going through that march of Californians against the newly elected leader. And thinking, wow, these guys in Sierra Leone have been through ten years of civil war. And they’re pretty happy. They’re resilient. I mean, they’ve been through tragedy, but they’re resilient. And that the things that face us in the West are so different. And while I was wondering how some of the people like the chief in one of the villages—he speaks very good English, so I was able to spend a lot of time in conversation with him. I wondered what he did when he was in the middle of it.
Scott: Well, I was actually part of a presentation at MIT recently, and AI is a significant challenge to the future. I don’t think people really understand what it’s represents. It’s pretty freaking scary. Talking about that, what’re your plans for the future?
Simon: With thinking about other drinks we might do, I mean we’re well aware of demand for more interesting flavors and other formulations that have more sugar in them. So we’re always looking for new ways to do what we do. I think the most important thing for us as a company, given our sort of central mission to be an ethical product is the foundation that I was referring to before and how we developed that do be independent if you like. And the Karma Cola foundation to continue to do the work it does in Sierra Leone. And maybe we could broaden its agenda to work with other suppliers that we buy ingredients from. And something else I’m seeing is an opportunity to finally show other businesses like us how to do that because there does seem to be a lot of interest in perhaps being able to find other ingredients in the rainforest that we could help export and transform into goods that people want. Cuz there’s a more robust economy here that has that sort of sustainable future for the people living there and it means that we can protect the rainforest and their own futures. So those are the challenges to me at the moment, you know, how do we do that? And how do we get the growth we need to be able to reinvest that and building the foundation?
Scott: So if you look at what you’ve achieved and you dream about your future, what advice would you have for young people, old people, any people who want to create their own movements? Who wanna develop a brand, try to change the world, make it better?
Simon: I mean, the first one is just start. That you can prevaricate and try and get the perfect business plan but as soon as you start doing it, as soon as you have the product itself, you start learning. And you get feedback. I guess that’s the second thing is, when you’re offering something that really does give something true benefit, the response and the efficacy you get from customers can be very powerful. And that’s something to respect and to build. So that whole listening to the people who are buying and supporting your product, and engaging them and getting them involved is key to success. I guess the third thing is—and I keep saying this—but be careful what you wish for. Like, this is working really well. And now as I was alluding to before, we’ve gotta be mindful of how the work that we wanna do back on the ground with our producers that fixes their lives. Because we want this to be something they can derive the results from. Rather than us sort of sitting aside from them saying, you have to spend the money that we generate for you on this. We made sure that in the way the foundation’s set up that anything that goes back into the community is because the people there have asked for it and know that they can develop it further and own the outcome.
Scott: That’s a little bit of social planning in addition to coming up with delicious flavors and funky looking bottles.
Simon: You know, that’s something that I didn’t really end up doing, but it’s a great outcome.
Scott: Well it’s cool, and I mean I love that you run it but at the same time you’re able to both be an entrepreneur/co-entrepreneur but at the same time be socially minded. It’s great. That’s the world we’re living in, and we need more people like you. So Simon, thank you so much for joining me on the Uprising pod. Super interesting. If people want to find out more about Karma Cola, where can they go?
Simon: Karmacola.co.uk or .co.zed, a website with all of our bits and pieces. And at @karmacola on Facebook or on Twitter, Instagram. You’ll probably see the most interesting stuff on that Instagram. So people doing fun stuff with their drinks or things like that.
Scott: Well I definitely need my Gingerella t-shirt. If you’ve got an extra one, just pop it over. And a bottle of one of your delicious—and I mean I don’t know if they’re delicious but they look delicious—and pieces of art. I almost think that they’re like pieces of art with liquid within them, because they are just so beautifully designed. Anyone listening to this should certainly go to the website, check it out. Thanks so much, it’s been a lot of fun and I wish you all the best!
Simon: Appreciate it.
Scott: Alright, take care Simon.