Jean Mikerson never thought much about his brand.
The artist in Croix-des-Bouquets, Haiti, was already a master at his craft: turning scrap metal, specifically discarded oil barrels, into beautiful bowls, candle holders, wall art and other objects.
But as an independent businessman in a developing country, Mr. Mikerson did not have much access to larger markets or the marketing skills to make his goods seem appealing to consumers elsewhere who would pay good money for them.
That has changed in the past few years. On Thursday, items from Mr. Mikerson's shop, among others, will land at Hudson's Bay Co.'s flagship store in downtown Toronto – the last stop in a three-city tour that will see a Canadian trade partnership come home.
The project is called Brandaid. Launched in 2008, it is an effort by Canada's advertising industry to help Haiti's artisans with the design, branding and business connections they need to make their goods marketable on a global scale. Following the devastating earthquake in 2010, many of those artisans faced even bigger challenges as they struggled to rebuild.
The people behind the Brandaid project have negotiated deals to sell the artisans' products at some very big-name retailers, such as Macy's in the United States and Selfridges in Britain. But now the products are on sale through a large-scale retail deal in Canada for the first time, with roughly 40 items on sale from five groups of artisans in Haiti.
Its pop-up shop has already been unveiled at Hudson's Bay stores in Ottawa and Montreal, and on thebay.com. This week's opening in Toronto is part of a major marketing effort to convince Canadians to take a look at these products during the busy shopping season.
"It has to compete at the highest level in terms of presenting these as beautiful designs, not souvenirs," said Tony Pigott, chairman of ad agency JWT Canada, global chief executive of JWT Ethos and one of the people who spearheaded the project.
To do that, the project brought together microproducers in Haiti with people at agencies in Canada, who helped to design logos, develop tag lines and write advertising copy to bring out the story behind the products and produce videos to showcase the artists and their work.
"The only piece they were ever missing was branding. When it comes to the richer countries, it wasn't being properly represented … saying, 'This is an official brand. This is high quality,'" said Sebastien Howden, creative director at Tunji design, who developed branding for a couple of artisans' shops including Peace Quilts, which makes blankets out of old school uniforms. "We're trained to look at quality in a different way."
Brandaid's leaders argue that this could act as a model for development projects that focus more on trade, as opposed to charity. The artists receive 25 per cent of the retail price, a much higher margin from the sales of their products than they would otherwise get. It has attracted the attention of the Canadian government, too, receiving $750,000 in funding over the past two years from the Canadian International Development Agency – now under the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development. The federal government has emphasized it wants to put more focus on bringing the private sector into the business of development.
This concept of trade-based development has been gaining exposure. In the context of Africa, Economist Dambisa Moyo has argued that aid in Africa fuels corruption, economic conflict and a culture of dependency among developing nations. Others argue that aid is still useful, but agree that trade is essential to reversing that cycle.
"It's been long recognized in international development circles … that the south really has to get themselves out of the aid-dependency trap they've been in since the fifties and sixties. Increasing private sector activity and increasing international trade have to be part of that shift from dependence on aid," said Stephen Baranyi, a professor of international development at the University of Ottawa, and an expert on Haiti. Canada-Haiti relations, and development in fragile and conflict-affected states. "This project, even though it's very small, is an indication of the potential of that approach."
Trade liberalization between Canada and Bangladesh is another example of this model, Prof. Baranyi said. Easing tariffs on exports such as textiles have been a huge boon to that country's economy. It must go hand-in-hand with enforcement of worker's rights and workplace safety, as the collapse of the Rana Plaza production facility demonstrated this year.
Furthermore, it must come with an awareness among Western consumers of the need to pay more attention to where their products come from, and pay a bit more for those products.
"With each Bangladesh story, people become more and more mobilized or activated or aware. Brandaid is very much an enterprise that is positioned in the middle of this evolution, because the world is evolving and people are not satisfied with business as usual," said Cameron Brohman, president and co-founder of Brandaid.
Other retail projects, such as 10,000 Villages, have helped to build the image among consumers in developed countries of hand-made products from around the world as desirable items. Brandaid wants to take that further, making real money and expanding its reach. It is now exploring branching out the project to other countries such as Peru and Honduras.
"They're not going to trade their way out of poverty so quickly," Prof. Baranyi said. "But finding a way to market these products in an attractive way is important for the country as a whole. It contributes in a small way to rebranding Haiti itself."
On however small a scale, it is working. In Croix-des-Bouquets, Mr. Mikerson has been hiring: His 14-person shop now has 22 employees.
"I've managed to produce more, employ more people and make more money," he said. "…The project has done, is doing, and will do a lot for my family, my friends and I."