July 27, 2012, 3:27 PM

For Green Mountain Coffee Roasters a little education goes a long way

A campaign that communicates the meaning of fair trade boosts the company’s sales.

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Online retailer, direct marketer and manufacturer Green Mountain Coffee Roasters Inc. has sold fair-trade-certified coffee for nearly a decade. The designation means that the product meets certain criteria, such as that the farmers who grow the crop are paid a “fair wage.”

However, last year Green Mountain’s internal surveys found that even though selling fair-trade coffee is a key part of its brand identity, too few of its customers understood what the designation meant, says Derek Archambault, senior brand manager for Green Mountain, No. 83 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide. “Fair trade is a great story to tell once customers understand what it is,” he says. “Nobody would be against it. But it’s a complicated message to get across in that it involves international trade, coffee premiums and commodity pricing. We figured we needed to make that message accessible.”

The retailer last September launched a multipronged campaign to help shoppers grasp fair trade. It posted information about fair-trade certification on Faceboook, offered its Facebook fans free samples, hired celebrity spokespeople to spread word about fair trade, and ran print ads and coupons. It also attempted to garner word-of-mouth buzz.

To get consumers talking about fair trade, Green Mountain worked with BzzAgent Inc., the social marketing arm of marketing firm Dunnhumby Ltd. BzzAgent aims to help companies leverage word-of-mouth advertising via its pool of BzzAgents—consumers who sign up to try new products, often for free in exchange for talking about those products with their social connections.

When a consumer signs up to be a BzzAgent, he fills out an extensive questionnaire that gathers information such as his age, household income, what products he typically buys and who does the shopping in his household. BzzAgent then uses that information to help marketers find BzzAgents who fit their specific criteria. For instance, Green Mountain targeted its typical users—consumers who have high household incomes, who regularly shop for coffee and who are in their 30s or 40s. It then sent the roughly 10,000 BzzAgents who fit that criteria coffee samples.

BzzAgent gives the shoppers it selects for each program talking points about the product and asks them to spread the word about the product in face-to-face conversations and online via sites including Facebook, Twitter and blogs. For instance, in the Green Mountain campaign BzzAgents were given information about fair-trade coffee.

BzzAgent then tracks those BzzAgents’ actions so that it can give its client regularly updated metrics on what consumers are saying across the web. “It’s like real-time market research,” says Archambault.

Green Mountain’s results showed that its efforts to educate shoppers about fair-trade coffee worked, he says. By the time the campaign ended at the end of October, more than 1.8 million messages about the retailer’s fair-trade program were shared online and offline. Moreover, its internal surveys conducted after the campaign ended showed that consumers’ understanding of fair-trade certification increased 61% compared with the surveys conducted before the campaign.

That increased understanding helped produce a 14% uptick in sales of its fair-trade coffees, Archambault says.

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