Shaper: Simon Coley

Show aired on 21st July 2018

Transcript

Elliot Moss
Welcome to the Jazz Shaper’s Podcast from Mishcon de Reya. What you are about to hear was originally broadcast on Jazz FM however the music has been cut or shortened due to rights issues.

That was Chaka Khan with Sweet Thing. It is just after 9.00 on Saturday morning and it’s time for another addition of Jazz Shapers. This is the place where not only can you hear music from the Shapers in the world of jazz, soul and blues but we also talk to the shapers in the world of business. My Business Shaper today is Simon Coley. Simon cut his teeth working as a Designer and Creative Director for organisations ranging from Greenpeace to the Economist, he was also responsible for successfully bringing in the first Fairtrade bananas to New Zealand under the All Good Brand, which in 2014 was named the world’s fairest trader. In that same year the Karma Cola Company launched in the UK, an organic and Fairtrade range of drinks created to be good for the land, good for the growers and as good for you as a fizzy drink can be. There are now six drinks in the range which includes the eponymously branded Karma Cola. Hello and thank you for joining me Simon, I should say, nice to see you. Tell me about where this idea came from for the business, because you know we all have good ideas and most people stay with the good ideas in their head, you didn’t you did something else?

Simon Coley
It first started on a beach in New Zealand, Piha where I met the two guys that I am in business with Chris and Matt Morrison. Chris surfs there and I met him there just over twelve years ago now. We had been thinking about how we might bring organic tropical fruit from a place closer to New Zealand, Samoa to buyers in New Zealand and we had been trying to figure out how we’d sell these bananas that grow in abundance there and used to contribute to 20% of the Island’s GDP, and then when supermarkets became more sophisticated along with containerised shipping a lot of that trade that was on banana boats to New Zealand disappeared because they couldn’t take the competition from larger exporting nations like Ecuador and Malaysia. So Chris had been there surfing, I had caught up with him afterwards, he said there is all this great produce there that is not making it out of the country, why don’t we do something about it, and naively I thought what a great idea, you know, surely people of New Zealand would like organic Fairtrade bananas from Samoa from their neighbours. So, we imported some and it went really badly. We didn’t realise just how fragile and perishable bananas are, strangely and we quickly learnt that we didn’t know enough about it to make it work but there was a great demand for these things, that people wanted to be able to buy produce from people they knew and understand the provenance and be able to kind of, you know, know the impact they can have as consumers. We sort of saw that and we tried to explain it in this idea of a virtuous circle which is where the name for that company, All Good, came from, that these things would be good for the land, good for the growers and good for consumers. But in thinking that through and consequently we have got better at importing bananas, we now bring a few containers of fair trade bananas into New Zealand every week so you know we learnt very quickly how to manage that. But, when we had got over that first kind of challenge in our business we thought maybe we should move on to non-perishable products and we thought we would do drinks. And the idea of this virtual circle that we could be good for the environment and the people that grew produce as well as consumers made me think that the idea of Karma is a really nice way of explaining it, and we were thinking what else could we get from these places we could get coconut from Samoa, we would get chocolate and as a sort of prefix to that calling them Karma Chocolate and Karma Cocoa might be a good way to market them, and then I thought Karma Cola sounds great, you know, it’s sort of got a nice feel to it, as a product and maybe we could find some cola. And that is where it came from, thinking it sounds like we should do this, and we knew a little bit about the origins of cola in West Africa and because we were working with Fairtrade and these sorts of people that we had the good fortune to meet through our banana experience we met a man called Albert Tucker who was in Sierra Leone and he managed to find us some cola from West Africa where it originates and one thing led to another and a few months later we had a product that we called Karma Cola and started selling.

Elliot Moss
Simon Coley is my Business Shaper here on Jazz Shapers, Director and Co-Founder at Karma Cola. They did a really innovative thing, they put something called a kola nut inside a drink that they call Cola. It’s a radical thought. Six years ago you kicked the business off, I want to go back a little bit before we go there because now I feel like we have arrived at the point where the kola nut has made an entrance, but before that your own background, I think you trained as a designer, graphic designer, you were a Marketing Director for a brand I knew well which came out of New Zealand called 42 Below – a brilliant vodka brand really cool – and one of those kind of the first premium vodka independent brands that we had all heard of over here, if you were into vodka. What led you away from that corporate world into this, hold on a minute I want to do my own thing, was it a natural progression or was it a bit of a chance thing that happened?

Simon Coley
You know these things seem to make sense in retrospect at the time, it just sounded like a good thing to do, but you know if you wind back a little bit earlier, I grew up in a household where both of my parents had been brought up by solo parents, they had been supported by incredibly well thought through social welfare system in 40’s and 50’s in New Zealand and they had a pretty strong ethic around social justice, that I never really realised until I got a bit older and kind of understood that I had leant by osmosis the kind of values I have and you know as a kid I used to stuff letterboxes and do a little bit of campaigning for their political interests, and you know I always found that because they were both educators and my father’s also an artist that the idea of doing what we are doing now wasn’t an unnatural one, you know being creative which is a big part of what we do as an organisation but for me, being able to choose to have a career in the creative arts or the creative industry wasn’t unusual, although it was for a lot of other kids of my age at the time. Because my father was an artist.

Elliot Moss
And it feels like there has been a fusion of creativity and social justice but that wasn’t again, just looking back it wasn’t I suppose like anything we all grow up and then you start doing something which is purely creative, you do something that is a bit more businessy and then found your moment. Did you realise that that is what you were doing, that you were bringing social justice into a creative framework?

Simon Coley
That’s the thing that it looks like…

Elliot Moss
It looks like you haven’t really thought it out?

Simon Coley
…having the benefit of hindsight, there is this great kind of combination of purpose, you know, that there is some justice in doing these things and the creativity in the way we go about doing it, and the commerce of it and that you know if we get those three things lined up it’s kind of powerful; people are interested in it, they kind of see it beyond being in our case just a fizzy drink, which isn’t a very necessary commodity, and that the benefit isn’t preached to people, that to engage people in what we are doing, having an interesting looking product and a story that is not too earnest or preachy, really helps because then it’s you know, it should be fun to do these things and you should probably enjoy the indulgence in another way by knowing it has a benefit to someone else which is where those three things sort of come together.

Elliot Moss
Is there anything specific to you and the way you are Simon, about being from New Zealand and about coming from a ‘small Island or two Islands’, and has that do you think is it just an unconscious thing or do you think I’m not from here – I know you’ve lived between both places and you continue to move around a lot – but is there something about being an outsider which has helped you?

Simon Coley
I think it does in that you don’t have any preconceived ideas, especially you know a market like this, it helps to have some experience, you don’t want to have that sort of eyes of a novice without at least some understanding of you know, where you are going but at the same time there is a kind of cultural understanding in New Zealand that you kind of need to be a generalist to get things going because it’s a small population, the skill base is great, but you know, you need to apply yourself to things to make them happen, and there is also a kind of, I guess a cultural phenomenon where people will give it a go, you know, it can’t be too hard to do something because, you know, with 42 Below one of things that I learnt from Geoff is that he wrote a book about this, ‘Every Bastard Said No’, you know. There are a lot of people that were sort of knocking the idea because it sounded like there is a lot of vodka in the world, you know why would you do another one, why would one from New Zealand be of interest to anyone. You go well that’s not a reason not to do it, if anything that differentiation is great, you know New Zealand could have a great pure brand, that coming from a place that has clean air and you know extreme weather, you know it’s like Russia or Finland. Maybe you can make a great vodka there, you know. So the idea of that Kiwi spirit or ingenuity I guess we call it, that people have a sense being pioneers there or have, you know our forefathers there, and foremothers, you know we are pioneering in a number of ways and that is still part of the culture and the constraints that you feel in a more bigger population where there are a lot of specialists aren’t quite the same so you know there is a bit more headroom if you have got an idea. It’s not all you need but it’s quite good to have that confidence to try something and start it to learn from it, rather than think you can’t do it.

Elliot Moss
Definitely worth thinking about how you might find your headroom wherever you are, thinking about your idea. Stay with me for much more from my Business Shaper, Simon Coley. We are going to crack the kola nut pretty shortly and you will find out how he has been managing to sell millions, and millions and millions of his drinks in over twenty countries as well. That’s all happening in a few minutes but first here is more from our News Session podcast you will recall that we talk about an interesting and important topic to you, an important topic in business but it is through the lens of the law, this is about the gig economy and our host is the one and only Paddy O’Connell.

Don’t forget you can hear this programme and so many more in the archive after 10.00am this very morning. You can also ask Alexa or Google to play Jazz Shapers and there you can hear many of the recent programmes including today’s after 10.00 as I said, or if you pop Jazz Shapers into iTunes you will get the full archive of programmes to enjoy there as well. But here right now is Simon Coley, Director and Co-Founder at Karma Cola and we were talking… I mentioned earlier the kola nut, I want to bring the kola nut back into centre stage. You are holding one. For those people that don’t know and you would think, thank you I am now holding one, and I am going to smell it, it doesn’t smell, it smells of kind of I don’t know what it smells like actually.

Simon Coley
Earthy.

Elliot Moss
Earthy, that’s a good word thank you. Most cola I would have thought has a kola nut in it, he says naively does it, Simon, or is yours the only one?

Simon Coley
Well, I mean we like to think it does. I think there are other brands that have experimented with you know real natural and organic ingredients, but the point of ours was that we’ve challenged ourselves to make a cola that had ingredients you would recognise, so ours has lime, coriander, cinnamon, orange zest, lemon and kola. Cola is you know something that’s the most popular word in the English language but probably not in the drink that bears that name, and that was a big point of difference for us that we could take what is an incredibly bitter flavour and quite an important you know, ritual ingredient in West Africa and use it to honour the kind of idea of the recipe and that we tried a lot of different recipes, a lot of different combinations of those key ingredients with lemon juice and sugar and lime and vanilla to balance the bitterness out, because kola was probably invented as a kind of tonic to mask the active ingredients in the drink and the kola has theobromine which is a bit like caffeine, it’s a bit of a stimulant, makes you talkative, it’s used ritually to welcome people in West Africa so that idea of kola adding life is actually a phrase that is used in the villages we work with, they say he who brings kola, brings life.

Elliott Moss
Now your packaging brings life, your whole ethos obviously brings life as well. It is that fusion of well now it’s a nice taste, you actually create a product, but you’ve thought very hard about the aesthetics. Tell me a little bit about obviously you are a designer by background and you have a feel for it and you have taste, but why the way, but why is this where you came to?

Simon Coley
The bottle and the can have a kind of depiction of a character or a spirit from the area that we get the ingredient from, called Mami Wata, and Mami Wata is a like a mermaid she lives in literally from Creo, it’s Mother Water is the interpretation. But she brings good fortune to the people in the villages like a storm or a river would and disaster so she can be tempestuous, both good and bad and the depiction that the artist that we asked to help us with is of a kind of like an angel and a devil flying around the words Karma Cola, and you know in the past there is a mythology around Mami Wata appearing to one of the Chiefs in the key village that we trade with called Boma and the Chief was then a man and Mami Wata came to him in a dream and said in the future I would like you to make sure that all the future Chiefs are women, otherwise there will be trouble, and since then every Chief of Boma has been a woman.

Elliot Moss
And the other thing to note is, by the way, that part of every sale of every bottle and can goes towards grower’s families, so there you go.

Simon Coley
In those villages.

Elliot Moss
In those villages which is pretty cool. It isn’t just Cola it’s ginger ale, what’s the other one?

Simon Coley
This is a new one, it’s orangeade.

Elliot Moss
Orangeade, good haven’t seen that one, there is a lemony one as well?

Simon Coley
There’s a lemonade called Lemony yeah and we have a sugar free Karma Cola and a few other new formulations like that…

Elliot Moss
They’re not listening, do you have a favourite? They won’t hear?

Simon Coley
After cola I really like the new orangeade. It’s a good summer drink which is probably why we called it that.

Elliot Moss
Obviously you have not made drinks before, I mean this is the first time you have kind of created your own…?

Simon Coley
Well, Chris who is my Partner, had a business called Phoenix Organics in New Zealand so he was a pioneer of organic soft drinks there, so we do have a lot of experience in that area.

Elliot Moss
But for you personally it must be quite nice actually, obviously you were involved with the vodka thing, but this is now your own baby?

Simon Coley
Yeah, I think that it is, it does feel like that because we’ve created different characters for all of the drinks, which is probably not the smartest thing to do when you are trying to build a brand that everyone will recognise, but it seems to pay back in that people like, or they relate to the characters. So Gingerella who is you know, quite, well we think an attractive looking fiery red-headed woman, adorns the can and the bottle of our ginger ale and she has really got a lot of fans. She has appeared as tattoos on people’s breasts and arms, she has appeared in drag on a few occasions. We were trying to get someone to dress up as her in a sort of Trump suit because she has sort of become an icon for people with red hair, possibly not the one we were just talking about but, yeah, she has got a life of her own. And all of them seem to have out there on social media been adopted by people who have done their own thing with them.

Elliot Moss
Is the irreverence and I don’t think it is super irreverent, I think it is just having fun, is that from your personality? Is that because you think that is what people like or is it a mixture of the two? Because sometimes people have ideas you know, Innocent years ago pioneered the notion of packaging that talked to you, this takes it somewhere else again, it kind of has its got an artistic feel to it?

Simon Coley
I think there is something, you know, one of your former guest’s talks about having creative courage, that you know, if you have an idea like this, actually following it through and you know…

Elliot Moss
John Haggerty you are talking about?

Simon Coley
That’s the one. Yeah, and he is someone who has seen the brand and you know been you know, spoken about it with me and been kind of impressed with it, if I can say that. It’s really great to get that feedback, but I think you know the point is we try and engage people visually and you know make them smile a little bit in their minds when they see it, but that is the kind of engagement we want to get with people not to tell them what is going on but to capture their imagination, so then they can discover a bit more about why we are doing it and why we think its important. You know our kind of way of codifying this is to think if it looks great, at least we get people to reach out and pick it up. If they pick it up and taste it and it tastes good then we have got permission to do more, so we get the looks great, tastes great then when we tell them, or they discover that we do good as well, then we have sort of got a relationship with them. You know, we can kind of go, you know by the way you have just drunk this and some money has just gone back to educate some kids in a village in Africa to help them gain their own economic independence and that sort of closes the circle, that is the Karma in our Karma Cola.

Elliot Moss
And I want to talk more about that Foundation and all the activities you do in our final chat which is going to come up shortly, plus I will be playing a track from Al Green.

That was Al Green with Tired Of Being Alone. Simon Coley is my Business Shaper just for a few more minutes, we have been talking all about if it looks good, if it tastes good then you can do good. Right, you’ve got your relationship as you said. Tell me about the good things that you have done through the Foundation?

Simon Coley
Well, look I mean it is the collective work of a lot of people, Albert our Chairman has done an incredible job of sort of bridging the relationship we have with our growers on the ground in Sierra Leone and developing that scope of the Foundation further to Sri Lanka and other places where we get ingredients from. But the, what we have been able to do with the money that is generated from the sale of drinks is education young girls, they don’t normally get the chance, it is usually the first son that gets the education and then the next boy and the next boy, if there are boys and if there is a girl she is less likely to get to school so we have made sure we can shift the balance back towards young women in these villages. Because there are women as Chiefs, so you know there is already role models for leadership, but education is such an important thing in these cultures, because otherwise their choices as children are to be farmers or farmers wives and there is not a lot of room for them to continue to generate their income from farming so that is a big thing for us. Infrastructure, when we first sent the first cheque there from the first year of sales we put some kind of guidelines in it, we don’t pretend to be an AGO, it was kind of a DIY thing at the beginning and we said look we don’t know what you need, as much as you do, so let us know what you think we should spend the money on. The rules are it has to benefit the entire community and not individuals because we didn’t want Chiefs taking it and not spreading it across the community. It needs to be able to be used so that ultimately you become economically independent because we don’t want to be seen as a charity so things that are more like infrastructure than disposable like, when we were quite happy to pay for teachers and maintain schools but if we buy lots of pencils we just have to buy them again every year, so you know developing revenue that enables them to support themselves is better we think, so that has kind of been our approach and although it’s kind of started relatively chaotically we just kind of got requests and Albert would text message back to them and find a foreman or someone to help build something. But the first request they came back with was to build a bridge over a waterway that used to flood and take away their temporary bridge every year, and it made it very dangerous getting across from one of these villages to the other, so you know the first thing we heard back was we want to build this bridge. They built it when we first went there, we saw the entire community standing on it. Like the first view I saw of the village was all these guys dressed up as spirits dancing on this bridge. That was the moment when I thought ‘wow’, we’ve done something.

Elliot Moss
Let me ask you about that just before we go to your song choice because we are going to run out of time. What is… is that the moment that you want to feel, is that the most uplifting moment for you in the business?

Simon Coley
I think I have to keep going back to that, you know there are a lot of challenges in doing what we are doing and when you think, well an idea that was just an idea has turned into something with the help of a lot of people and a lot of enthusiasm for this idea. That is really tangible you know and you know apart from the obvious kind of job we are doing, the personal journey and being able to get to that point and take it further, was fantastic, like actually seeing what had happened.

Elliot Moss
And in a nutshell is the future about just doing, selling even more so that you can do even more. Is it as simple as that?

Simon Coley
I think it can be, I think you know, we’ve got to look at both ends of our supply chain, how we engage people in a respectful way as consumers of our products, and then the beneficiaries who you know anyone in that supply chain who can benefit from the commerce should be aligned with our purpose, and that is what happens with the partners we have in restaurants that sell our drinks and shops that sell our drinks, we try and get them all involved. So, you know, it feels like we can do more because we are trying to combine those things, that idea of being a purposeful enterprise, doing it creatively and showing that everyone can benefit from it commercially.

Elliot Moss
I really hope that simple recipe, and I know it’s not simple to deliver, I hope that remains right, front and centre for you, because I think its brilliant and what you are doing is fabulous and the drinks are really nice too. Which always helps doesn’t it?

Simon Coley
It is a benefit. Yeah.

Elliot Moss
Simon thanks for your time, just before I let you go what is your song choice? And why have you chosen it?

Simon Coley
Ah it’s Gil Scott-Heron. You know when you asked about this, I thought that I couldn’t get past it, you know every other Jazz experience I had in my life, this one keeps coming back and I think when I first heard it I would have been a teenager. Most of my repertoire was punk from here, you know I was find of angry, white music and then being introduced to Reggae and then I guess Jazz through Gil Scott-Heron’s kind of Jazz poetry and this song in particular, because last night I was badly, being a bad father, out with my kids looking at my phone and both of them said to me ‘stop looking at the screen dad’, you know and I thought yeah, you’re right and so when I was thinking about this song again this morning, I thought it’s still really appropriate, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised and it will be live.

Elliot Moss
And here it is just for you.

That was The Revolution Will Not Be Televised from Gil Scott-Heron, the song choice of my Business Shaper today Simon Coley. A brilliant example of fusing creativity with social justice and what is the output, business with purpose.

We hope you enjoyed that edition of Jazz Shapers. You will find hundreds more guests available to listen to in our archive. To find out more just search Jazz Shapers in iTunes or head over to Mishcondereya.com/jazzshapers.

Simon Coley

Simon Coley was responsible for successfully bringing the first Fairtrade bananas to New Zealand under the All Good brand. All Good has twice been named on the World’s Most Ethical Companies list and in 2014 was named the World’s Fairest Trader.  Around 2 billion cola-branded soft drinks consumed every day –yet none of them have cola in them. This means the growers of cola nut in West Africa have never made a penny from the sale of the world’s most popular soft drink.  Simon and his Karma Cola Co-Founders Matt and Chris Morrison set themselves a challenge of making a fizzy drink that could be a force for good. In 2010, Simon made the first few bottles of Karma Cola using a bag of cola nuts sent to by friends in Boma, a small village in the Gola Rainforest in Sierra Leone. In 2014, Karma Cola Co launched in the UK – an organic and Fairtrade range of drinks created to be good for the land, good for the growers and as good for you as a fizzy drink can be. There are now six drinks in the range: Karma Cola, Sugar Free Karma Cola, Lemony Lemonade, Gingerella Ginger Ale, Summer Orangeade and Chilli Karma Cola, brewed exclusively for Wahaca.

Listen live at 9am Saturday.

“My parents were singularly parented, but were supported by New Zealand’s social welfare system. They had strong ethics around social justice; I realised when I got older and understood that I had learnt my values through osmosis.”

“There was a great demand for Fairtrade. People wanted to be able to buy produce from people they knew and understand the provenance and be able to know the impact they can have as consumers.”

“We tried to explain it in the idea of a virtual circle, which is where the name for the company All Good, came from.”

“The idea of the virtual circle: that we could be good for the environment and the people that grew produce, as well as consumers, made me think that Karma is a really nice way of explaining it.”

“As a child I campaigned for my parents political interests. They were both educators and my father’s also an artist and I found that we are doing now isn’t unnatural; being creative and vocal is a big part of what we do as an organisation.”

“We want to: engage people in what we are doing; have an interesting looking product; and a story that is not too earnest. We should enjoy the indulgence in another way by knowing it has a benefit to someone else.”

“Other brands experiment with real natural and organic ingredients, but we’ve challenged ourselves to make a cola that had ingredients you would recognise: lime, coriander, cinnamon, orange zest, lemon and kola.”

“We don’t want to be seen as a charity, we were quite happy to pay for teachers and maintain schools but developing revenue enables them to support themselves, so that is our approach.”