I haven't bought a can of coffee in twenty years. And here I am lecturing the big guys who sell them. Will they   support us?

I haven’t bought a can of coffee in twenty years. And here I am lecturing the big guys who produce them. Will they support us?

The 103 year-old National Coffee Association (NCA) asked me to speak to their membership during this past week’s New Orleans conference. They specifically asked me to address how to better communicate its coffee enjoyment message to consumers. With only three weeks to go before my own CoffeeCon consumer festival in Chicago, I jumped at the chance to find industry supporters to help make CoffeeCon even bigger and better.

I’m thinking it should be a no-brainer to get the industry’s support. Isn’t the NCA the big guys in a coffee trade association with members like Starbucks, Maxwell House and the Colombian Coffee Federation? You might not think of this group as Third Wave Coffee, but I’m told that 90% of all coffee passes through NCA members. They’re like a Bilderberg of coffee. I’m told this was the biggest-ever NCA event with almost 800 members attending. I am awed that my talk was scheduled for the main ballroom, their prime speaking spot. It shows that the NCA is earnest about consumers. Attendance was good. They all showed up. So, big coffee does want to know what I’ve learned from you the coffee consumer. Consumers are why they get up in the morning and go to work. There is a refreshing self-honesty to this level of the business. Like the TV industry I once worked in, it’s all about numbers here.

As much as I enjoy speaking in front of live audiences, this group of industry captains made me nervous. I wondered if they would accept and support my message since I’m not a coffee industry person; just a writer and coffee enthusiast. Once I got into what CoffeeCon is, then about who comes, I got calmer. CoffeeCon is still new. We’re only in our third year. We don’t have big advertising budgets, large staff or even major industry clout but we do have thousands of attendees, people who have already experienced the opportunity to taste local and national coffee roasters side by side while attending over 40 coffee education classes.

Based upon my post-speech observations, and an admitted small feedback sampling from some of these big companies, I’m sure they get CoffeeCon’s importance but not their place. I’m a little confused. NCA, the organization definitely gets it. Their new CEO, Bill Murray, is from the film industry, and he knows modern business without consumer buy-in and without reach out to them to touch them does not thrive or even survive. The NCA has announced a new national consumer campaign. They also know this generation of consumers insists the industry bring fair pricing economic equity to farmers and bring them into the loop as well.

Starbucks has hired Dr. Tony Byers, PhD, who was there speaking about diversity and inclusion’s role in stimulating innovation. Dr. Byers is responsible for teaching Mermaid team members to make a difference by recognizing growth opportunities and facilitating flexible thinking in their management hierarchy. His entire role within the company is to get management to lose their bias that predisposes “safe” thinking and the word “no” to new ideas and instead be open to and seize opportunities for growth.

Since Starbucks is known for its leadership, seeing trends and moving quickly, this surprised me. But Dr. Byers says every company eventually suffers from “corporate think” and starts to move slower, and Dr. Byers is trying to treat (or prevent, I’m not sure which) this condition at Starbucks.

I’ve been speaking to Starbucks corporate about CoffeeCon for the past six months and even though CoffeeCon’s message about tasting and sustainability are 100% in concert with Starbucks’ public mission statement, it remains to be seen if they will participate even at a small level, such as a non-on-site sponsorship. I pay everyone from our expert presenters and farmers who travel to tell us first hand about sustainability to our musicians. I mean, shouldn’t sustainability apply to them too?

I personally like many of the people at Starbucks and they’ve been the big company leader in both farmer issues and things here domestically like worker benefits. They also had the integrity to hire someone like Dr. Byers to address any such paralyzing “corporatitus” (Dr. Byers’ words). But right now I’m dealing with most big coffee companies slapping me on the back and saying encouraging things, but always flinching at supporting CoffeeCon directly.

CoffeeCon is an independent, agenda-free, consumer education festival that has done it right. But people in large corporations have a problem because the group-think favors not making a decision. Dr. Byer points out all it takes is one person in a corporation to understand the opportunity and be willing to stand up for innovation. This is by no means aimed at Starbucks specifically. I met with a McDonalds ad agency executive early, before CoffeeCon v1, who recoiled at my suggestion that CoffeeCon needed additional coffee choices other than McD’s! Ronald was part of their rider too. I can tell you I didn’t soften until I had the opportunity to have my family stay at a Ronald McDonald House during a recent family medical challenge, but I doubt I’ll ever have a Big Mac Attack again in this life following my brush with their agency representative and what I consider her microscopic closed thinking.

For now I’ve got to be content that, long term, the big coffee companies will take the NCA’s consumer message to heart and eventually arise and sponsor our speakers and classes, letting you the consumers lead them to better coffee and a better sustainable coffee industry. I know not everyone rushes up to the speaker after the presentation and shouts “I’m in”! The audience was responsive, and I’m in this for the long term.

In the mean time, I need you, CoffeeCon’s loyal fans and followers, to get the word out and encourage your family and friends to buy tickets. Every dollar is spent on the event and supporting the classes and speakers. It’s you the coffee drinkers who are sponsoring CoffeeCon this year, not the big coffee industry. It’s people like Sara, our first ticket buyer this year, who kept CoffeeCon’s website open in her browser for nine months so she could buy the first ticket the day we launched ticket sales. It’s you the attendees who are our biggest advocates. Get your ticket today. Just like the NCA, you get it too and I thank you.