Have you thought of how much a story is worth to your brand? For most of us stories are part of who we are, and why we work so hard on our businesses. We know that stories will engage our customers. Our stories can help us be more profitable as we attract more of those ideal customers.
But have you thought outside of this model?
Do you ever think of an exit strategy for your business that included selling it? When working with my clients, a handful will say they want to sell the business or are creating it for their children. But they are the minority. Obviously a strong brand build on great storytelling is much more salable than a generic business without raving fans.
But what about selling your story while you keep the business? This concept sounded pretty bizarre to me when I first read the story of Mars, Inc. acquiring the name and brand of Alterra Coffee Roasters. You undoubtedly know Mars, the global manufacturer of confectionery, pet food and other food products, including M&Ms (my personal nemesis). Unless you are from Milwaukee you may not recognize the name Alterra.
The deal left the Milwaukee company with ownership of the local operations and an undisclosed bundle of cash to expand their operations, which they eventually renamed to Colectivo Coffee. Mars got the name Alterra to use on its single-serve coffee packets that Mars uses in its Flavia office coffee brewers.
Is the name Alterra that appealing?
Every time I hear it I think of Altair, the planetary system in Sector 9 for you non-Star Trek fans. What does that have to do with coffee? Are they thinking of marketing to Star Trek fans?
Mars doesn’t have a creative team that could come up with a catchier name? An interesting article on this story is in the Journal Sentinel and poses the theory that Mars wanted the backstory to Alterra—the idea of a small coffee company started by three friends “working nights while keeping their daytime businesses afloat,” who needed a strong brew.” The only viable alternative was to brew their own and Alterra was the result.
You can’t invent a story but you can buy one?
The article continues to describe how such an honest story of the founding is something you can’t invent and “feed to customers.”
Really? I have never been to an Alterra Coffee house or tried their coffee. I don’t even know anyone that has tried it. And, I love to hear about business successes that use stories and making big bucks from selling to some conglomerate would certainly qualify.
However the Alterra story doesn’t seem like much to me. Maybe because almost everyone one of my customers has an equally compelling, and frankly most are far more compelling, story than this one.
So who got the best of this deal?
Mars? The founders of Alterra? The customers? I would have to vote for the Alterra founders. They at least go the cash to expand their business. I am sure by now they have many more stories build their new company on.
Mars got a store-bought story that doesn’t fit with who they are. It also doesn’t really work outside of Milwaukee. How can a global conglomerate keep the little-coffee-house-that-could story authentic?
The Mars customers certainly didn’t win. The fans of the original Alterra say that new coffee being sold under that name is nothing like the coffee they loved. How could a huge company keep up the single-batch roasting that made Alterra famous? Fortunately, for those in Milwaukee, the new Colectivo Coffee should be able to recreate the flavor that brought them so much success.
What’s the message for you?
As is often the case with stories, there are multiple messages that can be found in this story.
- A good story is worth its weight in gold.
- Customers are pawns in the struggle to win market share.
- Small authentic brands are better at building great stories than large conglomerates.
- A great story is more valuable than a great name.
How will the new Alterra succeed? It will be interesting to watch the unfolding story. Your brand may never catch the attention of a large corporate buyer, but have you thought about the value of your brand stories?
The useful message from this story
The last message is one that has the most value for small business owners and start-ups. I frequently see clients obsessing about naming their new business. I rarely see the same angst over creating their stories. They have it backwards! Think about this when you are in the naming process. The story should come first.