September 6, 2023

How are certifications used to market coffee?


Certifications have long been an effective means of establishing higher social, economic, and environmental standards in the global coffee industry. These can range from producers adhering to specific farming practices which protect biodiversity to green coffee buyers proving they purchase lots at or above a “fair” market rate. 

At the same time, certifications are also useful marketing tools – efficiently communicating more ethical and sustainable practices to roasters and consumers. 

However, given that most producers don’t market their own coffees, understanding how certifications can retain more value in producing countries is essential.

To learn more, I spoke with three coffee professionals involved in Falcafé’s Neighbors and Friends Program. Read on to find out more about how certifications are used to market coffee.

You may also like our article on certifications and direct trade in the coffee industry.

Bags of green coffee in a warehouse.

The evolution of marketing in coffee

Although the coffee industry has certainly changed over the years, its current marketing model is largely a product of its history. In turn, many smallholder farmers don’t market their own coffee – and roasters handle the majority of marketing in consuming countries.

To better understand this, we need to consider the colonial history of the coffee sector. Throughout the 1600s and 1700s, European colonial powers established the coffee trade as we know it today. As the vast majority of coffee produced during this time was exported to Europe, marketing was targeted towards consumers rather than traders or roasters – albeit in a much more rudimentary form compared to today.

This trend of marketing coffee in majority consuming countries continued over the following centuries. During the 1700s and 1800s, coffee was branded as an “exotic” product. This means it came with a higher price tag that many people couldn’t afford.

However, at the turn of the 20th century, coffee businesses started to shift their marketing focus to meet changing demand. As convenience became a more important purchasing factor, more and more consumers expected their coffee to be roasted for them. At the same time, coffee also became more affordable and accessible to the masses.

In many major consuming countries since then, coffee marketing has continued its focus on the consumer. As such, almost by default, business-to-consumer marketing remains the responsibility of roasters and coffee shops. 

Ultimately, this means most of the value in the global coffee market is created after coffee leaves origin. This is because roasting adds significant value to coffee, after which it is marketed and sold. 

While there are some roasters in origin countries, because the majority are based in consuming countries in the Global North, this is where much of the marketing takes place.

What about specialty coffee?

The foundations of marketing strategies in the coffee industry have largely remained the same for centuries. However, that’s not to say the way coffee is marketed hasn’t changed – especially with the growth of the specialty coffee sector.

Humberto Florezi Filho is the CEO of Falcafé, a specialty coffee exporter in Brazil. 

“Generally speaking, with specialty coffee, there are more direct trade relationships between producers, exporters, and roasters,” he says. “The price of specialty coffee is also based on a wider range of factors, such as quality and flavour profile.”

There are many reasons for these changes, but evolving consumer demand has played a huge role. Now more than ever, consumers want to receive more information about coffee production, as well as knowing that farmers receive a “fairer” price.

Victor Fachinetti Vuolo is the Export Manager at Falcafé. He explains how demand for more information about producers and their coffees has increased in recent years.

“Traceability is becoming a very important factor in sourcing and marketing coffee,” he says. “Today’s specialty coffee consumer wants to know how the coffee was grown, who the producer is, and where the farm is located.

“Different processing methods have also had a big impact on specialty coffee,” he adds. “Over the past few years, there have been many new processing techniques, including controlled fermentation. This means roasters need to provide more information about coffee.”

Coffee producers on a farm in Brazil.

How are certifications used in coffee marketing?

With a bigger focus on sustainability, quality, and traceability than ever before, certifications have started to play an important role in coffee marketing.

In theory, certifications can prove that a specific coffee is grown or purchased in an environmentally, socially, or financially sustainable way. Producers achieve this through implementing formal agricultural training programmes, as well as adhering to a strict set of protocols and standards.

For example, to receive the 2020 Rainforest Alliance certification, producers need to comply with a number of sustainable requirements. These include safe and healthy working conditions, environmental protection schemes, and no forced or child labour practices.

Other examples of prominent certifications in the coffee industry include:

  • Fairtrade
  • Organic
  • 4C (the Common Code for the Coffee Community)

Over the past few years, several coffee companies have also launched their own private certification schemes. Some of these are:

In turn, including certifications on packaging means roasters and other coffee retailers can more effectively showcase their commitment to ethical business practices. 

“Certifications help to assure consumers that the coffee they buy is grown sustainably and ethically,” Humberto tells me.

Moreover, research has shown consumers are willing to pay more for certified coffee. For instance, the Specialty Coffee Association found that people paid up to US $1.36 per pound (0.45kg) more for organic coffee – with interest in other certifications also playing a role in purchasing decisions.

Green coffee cherries on a branch.

How do producers benefit from certifications?

It’s certainly evident that roasters reap the rewards of selling certified coffee. But do the producers who have to adhere to these standards see similar benefits?

By obtaining certifications, producers can showcase a dedication to maintaining quality, sustainability, and fair labour practices. This can help to strengthen their branding, differentiate from competitors, and even gain access to different markets.

“Certifications demonstrate producers’ commitment to quality and safety,” Victor tells me. “It affirms that their business practices have passed specific and strict performance and quality assurance tests.”

In theory, this also means farmers can receive higher prices for certified coffees.

Gabriele Maia Teajs is a producer in Brazil involved in Falcafe’s Neighbors and Friends Program.

“If farmers meet all the criteria for the certification programme, they can get a better price for their coffee,” he says. “This means they can invest more in their farms, and also improve their quality of life.”

CEO of Falcafé Humberto Florezi Filho holds dried coffee beans.

Overcoming challenges when obtaining certifications

When opting into certification programmes, there are clear advantages for producers. However, growing certified coffee can be both financially and logistically challenging.

The process of obtaining certifications is neither easy nor cheap, with extensive documentation, audits, and ongoing compliance involved. Ultimately, this increased level of administration can take time and attention away from core farming activities, such as irrigation and quality control.

Moreover, the fees needed to obtain and maintain certifications can strain producers’ already limited resources. This is especially important considering that coffee farmers are usually paid in a lump sum once a year when they sell their harvest, so finances need to be managed as effectively as possible.

It is therefore crucial that producers receive the right level of support when applying for and adhering to certification schemes.

In response to these challenges, Falcafé’s Neighbors and Friends Program was designed to help smallholder farmers achieve similar outcomes to more traditional certifications in a more accessible manner.

“The Neighbors and Friends Program provides one-to-one agronomic assistance, as well as offering training courses in partnership with Brazil’s National Service of Rural Learning (SENAR),” Gabriele says. In turn, producers have the opportunity to improve coffee quality and yields.

“With its expertise in the specialty coffee sector, Falcafé helps Brazilian producers to sell their coffees in many different international markets,” he adds.

Support in formalising agricultural best practices

For certifications to work most effectively, they need to have strict standards and requirements. To adhere to these successfully and sustainably, producers need to receive the right level of support based on their needs.

“When we share knowledge – such as choosing which varieties to plant in certain plots of land, proper fertiliser application and management, or best practices for drying coffee – farmers can benefit and maximise yields and quality,” Victor says.

Humberto agrees, saying that support can extend beyond farming practices.

“As well as providing training on how to reduce the use of pesticides and increase productivity, we also inform producers on how to take better care of their equipment and how to work in harmony with nature,” he explains. “This helps to improve the quality of life for producers, local communities, and coffee production in general.

“Moreover, when we provide this support, we don’t charge producers,” he adds. “This makes Falcafé’s Neighbors and Friend Program more accessible for smallholder producers.”

A coffee farmer in Latin America.

Certifications have played an integral role in coffee marketing, and will continue to do so in the future, too. At the same time, they are also part of much broader marketing strategies that highlight a wide range of factors, including origin, processing method, and sensory profile.

While it’s up to producers to implement stricter farming practices in line with specific certifications, the responsibility to support them in these efforts must be shared.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on growing sustainability in the coffee supply chain.

Photo credits: Catenacom

Perfect Daily Grind

Please note: Falcafé is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind.

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