‘Ubuntu’ is a South African term for ‘humanity and kindness’. The Ubuntu Trading Company, which sources sugar from Malawi, donates 15% of its annual profits to the Ubuntu Africa Programme, supporting the sugar producers.
“We know that we’ve created something that people love to drink and can feel good about buying,” says Miranda Walker. “The Waitrose listing is a huge milestone, giving us the scale to springboard to a much wider audience. It’s a very exciting time for all those involved.”
James Hodgson, Waitrose drinks buyer, says: “We’re always looking for great-tasting drinks, and every so often a product shines because of its story and its ethical contribution. Ubuntu Cola is an example of the great things we can do with Fairtrade, and it’s a pleasure to be able to stock a drink playing such a positive role in the industry.”
Miranda responded: “Every time you drink an Ubuntu Cola, you’re directly taking part in the Fairtrade movement.”
How did you plan the formulation?
Miranda Walker: We were determined that our product would taste as good as leading brands and spent time on different variants in qualitative research before putting three candidate products into qualitative blind tests, in which 76% respondents (all branded cola drinkers) said they would drink Ubuntu.
It was a challenge finding a cola that appeals to Coke and Pepsi drinkers, as the flavour spectrum is surprisingly wide. The other challenge was finding manufacturers who could work with crystalline format Fairtrade sugar.
What’s your marketing strategy?
*MW*: We’ve always adopted a grassroots approach. There’s terrific support from Fairtrade activists and student groups in universities who have campaigned to have Ubuntu stocked. We’ve been genuinely surprised by the unsolicited brand engagement we have enjoyed from consumers.
The essential thing is to get people to taste the product. Once you overcome the preconception that an alternative cola will be inferior, you’ve won the battle. Visibility at point of purchase is a priority for us and we use ‘impactful’ material to give us greater standout.
We’ll never have the budgets of mainstream competitors, but the idea of Ubuntu has a powerful appeal. When we have that sort of money, we’ll share it with the producers rather than spend it on advertising.
Social media is essential in creating immediacy, salience and involvement. Just take a look at Flickr to see how many people have posted pictures of themselves holding cans of Ubuntu!
Which geographic regions do you see Ubuntu selling in next?
*MW*: We’re already selling in Sweden, Norway, Belgium, France, Switzerland and Italy, with active enquiries from other European markets and further afield. At the moment, it isn’t cost effective to fulfil this, but it’s nice to know that it’s there.
Why did you start in the UK? Is there a greater leaning towards Fairtrade products?
*MW*: It was obvious to start in our home market, which we understand and is accessible from a logistics and budget point of view. It’s also a large market due to its population and the popularity of cola as a drink. Yes, the UK has a high awareness and penetration of Fairtrade products: 72% of the population purchase them. The Fairtrade market was worth £800m in 2009, up 12% from 2008 despite the appalling economic climate.
Packaging is becoming more sustainable on a global basis, and more products are now Fairtrade sourced. Do you have a vision of a whole beverage industry that’s more ethically and environmentally aware, and what proportion do you think we should reasonably be striving for?
*MW*: I think you have to strive for 100% or you will always achieve less. In the long-term, it will be essential for all industry to be vastly more ethically and environmentally aware and this will require step changes in the way we consume.
Current consumption rates of natural resources are simply not sustainable, so it will happen through enlightened choice or it will be done for us, which may be a lot more painful. I have faith that the majority of consumers always prefer to do what’s right.
Miranda Walker is founder of Ubuntu Cola.
Claire Phoenix is editor of Beverage Innovation magazine, which will publish a ‘Sustainable sourcing supplement’ in its July issue. Subscribe here.
© FoodBev Media Ltd 2018
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