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Starbucks campaign: Anatomy of a win

Coffee farmer Gemede Robe asks Starbucks to sign a licensing agreement with Ethiopia. Robe's photo graced countless campaign materials, including the poster behind him.

Gemede Robe walked to the podium outside the Addis Ababa Sheraton, a white shawl wrapped around his shoulders. An 85-year-old coffee farmer, Robe had come to support Ethiopia's trademark initiative.

He'd left his village for the first time to explain why companies like Starbucks should recognize Ethiopia's ownership of its own coffee brands.

"The names Yirgacheffe, Sidamo, and Harar are as unique to Ethiopia as the flavors of the coffees," he said. "Whoever says these names are not the property of Ethiopia is as crazy as someone who would say the name I gave my first-born son is no longer his."

Robe spoke at this coffee ceremony last December as a kind of local celebrity. His face—the gray beard, the unflinching stare—had become the iconic image of Oxfam America's Starbucks campaign. Launched in October 2006, the campaign asked that the coffee giant sign an agreement acknowledging Ethiopia's right to license and distribute its fine coffees. By recognizing Ethiopia's intellectual property rights, Starbucks could give poor farmers a chance to earn a greater share of the profits.

Aware of Starbucks' status as a global brand interested in maintaining its socially responsible reputation, Oxfam used grassroots activism and strategic media to draw attention to the issue. Though initially reluctant, Starbucks entered into serious talks with Ethiopia in May. By June, they had finalized an agreement that could change the coffee industry forever.

"The true victors of this campaign are the 1.5 million coffee farmers in Ethiopia whose lives will improve," said Abera Tola, director of Oxfam America's regional office in Ethiopia."They have given a glimmer of hope to millions more like them all over the world who deserve recognition for the quality products they generate."

At Oxfam, we feel it's important to stop and recognize a victory. But after all the celebratory emails have been sent, what comes next? For an organization interested in creating lasting solutions to poverty, the end of an effort is in many ways the beginning. This is when the real analysis comes in; just what went into this win?

Creating public pressure

Oxfam began negotiating with Starbucks in 2005 when we first learned about Ethiopia's efforts to trademark its fine coffees. After dozens of conversations between our Boston headquarters, the Seattle home of Starbucks, and Ethiopia's Intellectual Property Office in Addis Ababa, it became clear that high-level talks would not be enough. It was time to enlist the public.

At a grassroots level, Oxfam worked with a coalition of allies to organize members of the Ethiopian Diaspora, students, Starbucks employees, and our own supporter base. By the campaign's end, more than 100,000 people had gotten involved, many of them sending Robe's photo around the world on postcards, flyers, and posters. Robe's face even appeared on web sites and in newspaper ads during a series of global "days of action" in places like Seattle, Scotland, and Hong Kong. The accompanying message to Starbucks remained simple: Honor your commitments to coffee farmers.

Throughout all this work, Oxfam tested creative ways to engage our supporters. We filmed the days of action and posted the video on YouTube. We sent a petition to Starbucks that became the most popular online action in our organization's history. We had supporters participate in a photo petition on Flickr. And we promoted it all on our social networking pages on MySpace and Facebook.

Eventually Oxfam's message reached Starbucks' shareholders. A few sent letters to Starbucks supporting Ethiopia's trademark initiative. And at the Starbucks annual general meeting in April, some joined members of the Ethiopian community in asking pointed questions of both the company CEO and chairman.

With activists combining efforts around the world, Oxfam ramped up the public pressure by focusing on the press. Over the course of the campaign, major media outlets&mdsah;including NPR, the BBC, CNN, Time, Fortune, and The Wall Street Journal—featured the David-and-Goliath struggle of the Ethiopian farmers and Starbucks.

"What might have remained a little-noticed bureaucratic dispute became an international affair when Oxfam, a nonprofit relief and development group, began publicizing it in the fall," wrote The Wall Street Journal in a March 5 article.

Remembering the "ground truth"

Each aspect of the campaign had its impacts. But it just may have been the voice on the ground that resonated loudest with Starbucks. In the end, the company seemed to accept the simple truth: The campaign wasn't about a development agency, a roaster, or a government. It was about people like Robe, the coffee farmer demanding economic justice.

When the old farmer from Afursa Waro village, whose face had launched the entire campaign, made one final appearance, it was in a thank-you video for Oxfam supporters.

Sitting among his fellow farmers in a lush meadow overlooking the Yirgacheffe hills, Robe looked into the camera once again. "We know that Oxfam and many people around the globe are standing by our side in supporting us in this effort," he said. "You, our supporters, have given voice to our cause."

Then Robe stood alongside his fellow farmers and, in unison, offered a series of customary bows. "Gelatoma. Gelatoma. Gelatoma," they said in Oromifa, their region's language. "Thank you. Thank you. Thank you."

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