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Mickey McLeod, founder and CEO of Salt Spring Coffee Co. (John Lehmann for The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail)
Mickey McLeod, founder and CEO of Salt Spring Coffee Co. (John Lehmann for The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail)

Public relations

Method not as important as the message Add to ...

For a small company, Salt Spring Coffee Co. generates a big buzz - through the blogosphere, social media and, occasionally, the mainstream press.

Google the British Columbia purveyor of fair-trade coffee and you'll see more than 9,000 mentions of a flash mob in 2010, where environmentalists, connected through e-mail and text messages, descended en masse on one of the company's coffee shops to stage a "buycott" (the opposite of a boycott) supporting Salt Spring's efforts to reduce its carbon footprint.

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Organizers called the event a "carrot mob" - a carrot to reward good corporate practices rather than the disincentive of a stick.

What it really is, however, is an example of marketing, morals and networks coming together in a heady brew that promotes a company with business philosophies that customers literally buy into. The method isn't as important as the message.

"They have clearly defined the marketplace based on their values, and they have gone to the limits in terms of how they appeal to that marketplace," said Tudor Williams, founder of Delta, B.C.-based TWI Surveys Inc., which advises clients on communications strategies and gauges the results. "They get a lot of attention for a very small company."

While Salt Spring Coffee Co. is not a client, Mr. Williams is impressed by its creative use of social media tools - Twitter, Facebook, blogs.

The company's fair trade practices - it pays above-market rates to farmer-owned coffee co-operatives, often in developing countries, that do not harm the environment with their production methods - have attracted a loyal band of customers, noted Mr. Williams. These customers, in turn, talk up the product with their like-minded friends.

The company's focus on socially and environmentally responsible processes has garnered positive media attention. Less positive, as far as the company was concerned, was coverage in 2009 when local Salt Spring Island authorities essentially voted the operation off the island by rejecting its expansion plans. Salt Spring Coffee has since relocated to Vancouver, a move that did not hurt sales, which are just shy of $10-million a year.

Advertising and marketing are used differently by companies with supportive customer bases. "They really do thrive on their supporters, their customers, making a lot of use of social media," said Mr. Williams.

"When they [Salt Spring Coffee]tweet something, or use some other social media, all of their supporters, all of their followers will re-tweet and that's where you really start getting a lot of attention across a lot of different networks."

Until now, Salt Spring Coffee has not had a formal media strategy, said chief executive officer Mickey McLeod, who founded the company on bucolic Salt Spring Island 15 years ago, long before the large retail chains jumped on the green bandwagon. "The field is very busy. It's a much more crowded space. We have a lot of people nipping at our heels," said Mr. McLeod, who noted that even Wal-Mart now sells fair-trade organic coffee.

"A lot of people want to know - and should know - where their food and beverages come from, and how much energy is consumed [in the process]" said Mr. McLeod. He recently started working with an online marketing firm to hone his company's message and develop a strategy that more clearly differentiates his company from the competition. The campaign is using video to take customers right to the farms in Nicaragua, Peru, Guatemala, New Guinea and other places where Salt Spring Coffee buys directly from the farmers and works with them on sustainable production methods.

"When you talk about what you need to grab media attention, you need to have a really great story, you need to have a story that engages people on an emotional level," said Geoff Rowan, partner and managing director of Ketchum Public Relations Canada. The communications method - whether it's old media or new media - doesn't matter nearly as much as the message.

Mr. Rowan said the Salt Spring Coffee example illustrates that small- to mid-sized enterprises can be successful with a do-it-yourself communications strategy employing social media tools. However, "Salt Spring is right that there comes a point where you really do need to bring professionals in."

Still, even with 600 million people using Facebook, 300 million using Twitter, and 90 million on LinkedIn, many companies struggle to connect with their target markets, he said.

In talking to clients, Mr. Williams often points to WestJet, as "one of the stars, one of the poster companies" in using social media. This was particularly evident in November after a hotel explosion in Mexico killed and injured a number of Canadians. "Immediately they were Tweeting and had set up a Facebook site," not only for the families back here in Canada but for the guests in the hotel who wanted to cut their vacations short and return home early, he said.

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