“100% Kona” is Yesterday’s Slogan

When we drive in Kona we see bumper stickers saying “100% Kona.” The same slogan appears in advertisements and on websites. It is part of an advertising campaign by Kona Coffee trade associations to alert consumers to questionable blends of Kona coffee.

We understand the motivation for the slogan. Coffee farmers and producers are angry because roasters and distributors are trading on the Kona brand by creating “Kona” blends with questionable origin, quality and/or content. In some cases, none of the beans in the blend are legally “Kona” The reality is that for every product there is always someone who is willing to risk counterfeiting for profit. Kona coffee is no exception. When we first came to Kona we were told that three million pounds of coffee were grown in Kona, but that over five million pounds of Kona coffee were sold world-wide.

Commercial growers and producers are always trying to differentiate their products from other producers. Columbia has Juan Valdez even though their coffee isn’t any different or any better than Costa Rican coffee. Washington has Washington Apples even though Oregon apples are just as good. The list is endless, Idaho has its potatoes, Wisconsin has its cheese, Georgia has onions and etc. Kona Coffee trade associations have jumped on that bandwagon with the slogan “100% Kona.”

Regional brand identification is a benefit for commercial products. It lifts the entire boat so that everyone within the region benefits. However, the problem with regional identification is that quality is judged on a region-wide basis. Regional brand identification glosses over the reality that for any product there are good, mediocre and poor quality producers. It is not unusual to hear comments like “I tried Wisconsin cheese, it isn’t very good (or it’s wonderful.)”

Producers hope that the regional identification will induce consumers to believe that the regionally branded item is better than the same product from outside the region. So a shopper going into a supermarket may buy the apples with the Washington apple sticker because he perceives them as better quality.

Regional identification works very well for commercial commodities that are difficult to brand e.g. apples, lemons, potatoes, onions and etc. It doesn’t work well for specialty food items that can be branded. No consumer asks a shopkeeper for a bottle of St. Louis beer, Washington wine, or American whiskey. The region may lead a consumer but it is the brand that sells e.g. “Which Napa wine do you recommend?”

Regional brand slogans are particularly helpful to low quality producers. It is not unusual to hear consumers ask for a pound of 100% Kona coffee without regard to the brand. If you hang out at the Walmart coffee aisle you will be surrounded by tourists with hand calculators trying to figure out which 100% Kona coffee is the cheapest.

In one important sense, the “100% Kona” campaign has been very effective. We often hear tourists asking whether the coffee they are buying is 100% Kona. The slogan has helped create consumer awareness that small amounts of Kona coffee in a blend are not going to have any effect on the flavor.

In spite of the benefits, Kona Coffee growers are suffering from regional brand identification. One detriment of the “100% Kona” slogan is that it supports grower delusions. In spite of obvious facts to the contrary, there are growers in Kona who will swear that; Kona coffee is the best in the world, blending Kona coffee with any other coffee creates an inferior taste, only Guatemalan typica trees bear authentic Kona coffee, and all Kona coffee is outstanding. Meanwhile, Kona coffee distributors are complaining that long term customers in Japan and the mainland have stopped buying Kona coffee. A common quote from distributors and roasters is “Kona coffee is overrated and overpriced.” The reality is that there are Kona coffees that are outstanding, Kona coffees that you wouldn’t feed your pig and everything in between. Until recently Costco was selling a 100% Kona for $19.79 that was barely drinkable and couldn’t pass a specialty grade cupping test. Consumers who bought that coffee could rightly say: “I tried 100% Kona Coffee and it was terrible.”

It is time for Kona coffee trade associations to step up to the next level and start focusing on individual brand identification. Napa wine is known worldwide as a source of outstanding wine. There are a number of wineries in Napa that can stand up to any other winery in the world. However, not all wine produced in Napa is world class, even some wines produced from outstanding vineyards can be mediocre or poor. Napa doesn’t hide its poor producers behind a “100% Napa” slogan. Growers, vintners, distributors and consumers all know that there are outstanding, mediocre and poor wines produced in Napa.

Kona Coffee trade associations are helping brand identification by sponsoring programs like the Holualoa Coffee Art Walk and the Cream of the Crop. The Kona Cultural Festival Cupping Contest is an outstanding example of a marketing break out. For years the cupping contest judged Kona Coffee on a nebulous “Kona Coffee Profile” which protected Kona coffee against comparisons with world class coffees. Recently, that trade association has begun to identify outstanding Kona coffee’s on an international cupping standard.

However, local trade associations are still focused on “100% Kona” coffee. There are a number of small Kona coffee farms producing outstanding world class coffee. They don’t have the resources to advertise or promote their brands. When they participate in trade association competitions their names are buried, if mentioned at all, in “100% Kona” promotions.

We didn’t participate in the last Cream of the Crop, so we were interested in which farms had the best coffee in the competition. There were half-page news articles in the West Hawaii Today and the Star Advertiser talking about the competition and about “100% Kona” Coffee. There was not one mention of the winning farms. You cannot blame the newspapers for failing to print information that the trade association didn’t think was important. Trade organizations need to do more to educate coffee roasters, distributors and consumers about individual brand Kona coffees.

PS. On April 24 the Kona Coffee Council took out an advertisement in West Hawaii Today with a list of the winners in the Cream of the Crop. Good start, KCC! Keep it up.

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