He who brings kola brings life

Karma Cola is a soft drinks brand that does more than just pep you up. Its ethical business model and its work with kola nut farmers in Sierra Leone has been honoured by Fairtrade, while its use of design and illustration has won fans around the world

The mission of All Good Organics, the small New Zealand-based company whose products are either Fairtrade or sourced directly from farmers, is to live up to its name. “Good for the people who grow the product, good for the land and good for consumers,” says Simon Coley, the company’s co-founder and creative director. “It’s a transparent supply chain where both the grower and the customer, the end buyer, benefit from the transaction more than financially.” If this sounds unusual, coming from a new drinks company with its sights set firmly on the biggest players in a multi-billion pound industry, it is. But the position in which All Good now finds itself, thanks to the success of its Karma Cola, Gingerella and Lemmy lemonade brands, is the result of this important difference, not to mention the shift in consumer demand towards products that both taste – and do – good.

girl carrying soda bottles on her head
A girl carries soda bottles in Boma, Sierra Leone

Yet, these days ‘doing good’ is familiar patter for many brands, an eco-aware side to their DNA which shows they’re conscious of the impact a particular product has on the world – and that they want to give something back. So what makes All Good’s philosophy any different? Well, for starters, they have the credentials to back it up. In 2014, the company won the inaugural Fairtrade Awards’ ‘Fairest Trader’ accolade for its work with kola nut farmers in Sierra Leone in the production of its Karma Cola drink. This work led to the establishment of a Foundation which now supports more than 2,000 people in the village of Boma and the surrounding Tiwai region and has already led to the creation of a bridge which crosses the Makenneh river, joining up the old and new parts of the village.

cola nut store
The town that supplies the kola nuts to make Karma Cola; inside the nut store in Boma

Talking to Coley about his company, which he started with Chris and Matt Morrison, after working with the vodka brand 42 Below, he presents a compelling case for the way that a collaborative business model, highly dependent on creativity and word-of-mouth, can develop as part of an ethical one. All Good’s first idea was to sell bananas – and the fruit produced by the cooperative of farmers in El Guabo, Ecuador has since earned the local community over $600,000 in ‘Fairtrade premium’ funding, which, in turn, has supported educational, medical and sustainable farming initiatives. But the trio wondered if they could do the same with soft drinks and so, through their Fairtrade links, approached Albert Tucker, a social entrepreneur and former director of Fairtrade company Twin Trading, with a request for kola nuts. Tucker’s own contact was “kind of perplexed”, says Coley, but soon enough 5kg of nuts were on their way to New Zealand.

Karma Cola cups
Karma Cola cups

Vital ingredients

“It got to our mailbox and we started experimenting,” says Coley, pointing to a photograph of Karma Cola’s ingredients laid out in an exploded diagram. “We mixed it with Fairtrade sugar and vanilla, all organic lemon, nutmeg, cinnamon, coriander oil, citrus, malted barley. You’d probably find most things in a good spice cupboard.” However, in order to qualify as an organic product, he explains, the drink cannot contain phosphoric acid or aspartamine. These appear in most mainstream colas and subdue the hit of the sugar while instigating the desire to have another sip. Taking this out of the recipe gives the cola produced a more ‘authentic’ flavour.

Visualising the elements that go into making Karma Cola is in part a cheeky dig at the concept of the ‘secret formula’ which Coca-Cola has mythologised and used as a selling point since the 1920s. But, more than that, being open about what is in the product chimes with the demands of modern consumers who want to know exactly what they’re putting into their bodies. “It’s hard to hide the constituent parts of a product these days, there are lots of people motivated to get to the truth on behalf of consumers,” says Coley. Instead, Karma Cola aims to make its ingredients clear, “So we can be a benchmark”. The company’s mission statement of ‘Drink No Evil’ is evidenced in the transparency. “If you can’t give everyone a taste of the product – and not everyone can unpick the constituent parts – then make them visible,” he says.

Karma Cola & Friends booklet
Karma Cola & Friends booklet

Virtuous circles

Having settled on a recipe, the next ingredient was getting people to try it. The name ‘Karma’ seemed to tie everything up, hinting at the idea of
a sugary drink as a treat, while including the consumer in the process of ‘doing good’. “The great thing about it was that karma has ‘good’ and ‘bad’,” says Coley. “One of the things we’d realised in creating these stories about ethical supply chains is that they can be deadly boring, and sadly a lot of these well-intentioned products don’t look that exciting. So we had to break that mould, if you like.”

Diagram showing all the ingredients which go into Karma Cola.
Diagram showing all the ingredients which go into Karma Cola.

Ideas playing on ‘what goes around comes around’, virtuous circles and even the ‘ouroboros’ infinity symbol were discussed with agency Special Group, before they went back to the source; to the water spirit Mami Wata who looks after the villagers in Boma, but plays tricks on them, too. Illustrator Beck Wheeler created the final design for the bottles: an angel and a devil figure circling the words ‘Karma Cola’ and drawn in a Mexican ‘retablo’ votive painting style, with hints of blocky Scandinavian folk art. “It felt good because it was a bit wrong, it wasn’t so resolved or overly designed,” says Coley of the design. “It gave us a visual language we could apply to a lot of things.”

And it’s not just All Good who have made use of this language. Part of their success has been down to the brand’s, ahem, organic evolution via social media, advocacy and collaborations. Fan art, for example, has resulted in a 3D version of the Karma Cola logo and even an Instagram series created by a young fan in New Zealand featuring the adventures of ‘Lemmy’, the NZ version of the Lemony brand character, originally drawn by Matt Campbell. Coley calls this the result of “unexpected and delightful dialogue with customers” where “people are drawing their own versions; kids and artists take it and reinterpret it, without us pushing”. He likens contrived online attempts to create something ‘viral’ to buying ads on TV or billboard space. “You don’t get that organic engagement without other people contributing in this kind of open-source, creative way,” he says. “I’ve always thought that we can catalyse that but we can’t direct it. The great thing is we can do whatever we like, as long as we keep doing stuff that meets those values and tells our story.”

Poster for Lemmy lemonade (known in the UK as Lemony), by Matt Campbell
Poster for Lemmy lemonade (known in the UK as Lemony), by Matt Campbell

Key to All Good’s development to date has been the collaborations and partnerships which have helped link to the right people. Additionally, the way in which ethical products are regarded by the big supermarkets has also led to new kinds of thinking. “There’s kind of a ‘ghetto’ in supermarkets for ethical products and you don’t really want to be there,” says Coley. “I’d rather be competing with the mainstream of sales in this category than hidden away with a few others. The problem is that to get there, you’ve got to buy the shelf space, so it’s really hard. No-one, unless they’re actually owned by one of those brands, can afford to challenge them! So how do we do that without playing the game? The best way is to just look for people like us.”

Ginger and lemons

The brand is keen to associate with like-minded companies which have an emphasis on provenance, quality and design. When Karma Cola launched in the UK in 2014, it did so at the London Coffee Festival (their stand contained a huge Pop Art bench and a video screen showing footage of Coley working in Sierra Leone) and they have since aligned themselves with the premium coffee boom in the capital. The Monocle cafe in London became the first UK cafe to stock Karma Cola, for example, while high-end cycling brand Rapha has also worked with the company.

Box of Lemmy lemonade; Karma Cola cups.
Box of Lemmy lemonade

Following on from Karma Cola’s success, All Good launched its Gingerella ginger beer (which uses organic ginger grown by farmers from the Lunuwila Smallholder Society in Sri Lanka) and the Lemmy/Lemony

lemonade (using Femminello lemons grown in Sicily). Again, the attitude of both these brands is conveyed through strong design – a 60s-infused celebration of redheads and a decidedly punk lemon – combined with a sense of fun. “These things are not essential: if you’re feeling thirsty, water’s pretty good,” says Coley. “But if you want to treat yourself, then enjoy it – but be aware that there’s more to it than just instant gratification. That’s the bit I’m interested in now. Does all the theory actually work? Do people feel good about drinking one of our products? I think they do.”

Spread from issue two of All Good’s magazine, What Goes Around, showing the evolution of the Gingerella identity design, as drawn by James Stewart
Spread from issue two of All Good’s magazine, What Goes Around, showing the evolution of the Gingerella identity design, as drawn by James Stewart
The three All Good drinks brands. Simon Coley worked with Creative Heath Lowe and designer Emma Kaniuck from Special Group on the original labels
The three All Good drinks brands. Simon Coley worked with Creative Heath Lowe and designer Emma Kaniuck from Special Group on the original labels

For Coley, holding on to a sense of integrity is key to how his business develops. It’s certainly been a significant part of the journey so far and has led to collaborations with other companies and consumers who share those concerns. “I’ve learned over the last five years that from the surface of what we do, all the way down to who we do it for, we can show that integrity,” he says. “If that works, I think other people are willing to help you tell that story. Which is how we get more bottles into more hands. The more drinks we sell, the more good we can do. It shouldn’t be too hard.”

What Goes Around magazine which features articles on All Good’s work. The magazine is designed by Natasha Mead
What Goes Around magazine which features articles on All Good’s work. The magazine is designed by Natasha Mead
Karma Cola cart adorned with elements from illustrator Beck Wheeler’s identity for the brand.
Karma Cola cart adorned with elements from illustrator Beck Wheeler’s identity for the brand.

More on All Good Organics can be found at allgoodorganics.co.nz, while the UK website for Karma Cola drinks is at karmacola.co.uk. The headline to this article is an African proverb

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