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Organic Consumers Association

TransFair USA Eyes a Brand Makeover

TransFair USA recently announced that it is changing its name to "Fair Trade USA". According to an article on bizjournal.com, the rationale for the move is that "the simplified name change will better support the group's brand.". Strategic rebranding might make sense for any business that is trying to increase presence in the market or that is seeing its market share eroded. There are, of course, risks in doing this. When a company has spent years-- as in TFUSA's case-- building its brand, the move seems to be a particularly risky choice. To understand what advantage they are seeking by the change, we need to look at what this strategy could accomplish for TF in the fair trade market.

What TFUSA does, and has done, well is marketing. This has always been very interesting to me as they are not really by definition a marketer, they are a "neutral third party" certifier of transactions between coffee growers, coffee importers, and coffee roasters as well as a "promoter" of fair trade. Be that as it may, according to their books they have traditionally spent much more of their yearly operational budget on marketing rather than on actually auditing transactions. As a matter of fact, it was not until the past couple of years that they have put real resources into developing anything resembling a systematic auditing program for the roasters and importers who sell TFUSA "Fair Trade Certified" products. Instead of developing a true auditing/certification program TFUSA chose to put all of their eggs in the proverbial brand-building basket.

With this investment in mind, why would an organization that has spent over a decade putting resources into building strong brand identity suddenly decide to change their name? The answer is that they have put themselves at risk of becoming irrelevant in the "new" sustainable coffee market by a willingness to sell "fair trade" to the highest bidders. Because of this they are, somewhat desperately, trying to gain more legal and marketing control over the term "fair trade" here in the US as it faces challenges to its relevance due to ever-weakening minimum standards.

TFUSA has, in the past few years, run into stiff competition for "brand" supremacy with concerned consumers. If they had made different strategic choices in their growth and development, they may have been able to rely more on alliances built with "mission-based" roasters and NGOs for support. However, over the past decade they have successfully alienated most of the movement-based fair traders by unquestioningly hitching their wagon to an unimaginative "growth at any cost" strategy. During that time TFUSA consistently allied themselves with large corporations like SBUX and Procter and Gamble while ignoring the concerns of both small-scale "alternative trade" roasters and the small-scale producers whom we partner with. While producers and others in the larger FT movement have lobbied FLO to raise the increasingly ineffective FT minimum standards and invest in "alternative trade organizations", TFUSA has dragged its feet fearing the possibility of losing the big conventional businesses that pay their bills. The results of that strategic choice have now become apparent as the big players refuse to fully commit to TF and the smaller ones are, for the most part, choosing to move on.


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