Entrepreneurs

Peace Coffee Company Has Been Making Millions With a Mission-Driven Model

A quarter of a century ago, Peace Coffee was ahead of its time.

The Minneapolis-based coffee company has prioritized fair pay for coffee farmers since its founding in 1996, when few national coffee brands were focused on fair agriculture, trade and farming policies.  

“For a long time, Peace Coffee was a bunch of weirdos,” says CEO Lee Wallace, adding that early in her career, she felt like she was one of few mission-driven leaders focused on values before profit. “It’s great to see our ideas become more mainstream.”

Wallace has been Peace Coffee’s CEO since 2006, but didn’t found the company. Mark Ritchie, who later served as Minnesota’s Secretary of State from 2007 to 2015, launched the business through a nonprofit called the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) after visiting coffee farmers in Mexico. Ritchie saw an opportunity to set up a supply chain between Mexico and Minnesota that paid farmers fairly, letting them set the price of coffee themselves.

By 2006, Peace Coffee had reached $1 million in annual revenue, at which time Wallace joined the company to help scale it into a national brand while maintaining its focus on fair trade policies. Under Wallace’s leadership, the company joined the Carbon, Climate and Coffee Initiative with other like-minded coffee roasters. Companies that participate in the initiative invest three cents per pound of coffee purchased to help farmers adapt to climate change through projects like replanting abandoned plots to create test farms and hosting conferences for farmers to exchange tools and techniques. By the end of 2021, Peace Coffee will have contributed more than $165,000 through the initiative.

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After transitioning the business to a certified B-Corp in 2017, Wallace purchased Peace Coffee from IATP in 2018. The company generated more than $10 million in annual sales last year and has purchased more than 10 million pounds of coffee from small-scale farmer cooperatives in more than 12 countries.

These days, Wallace doesn’t feel so alone in her goals as a mission-driven CEO. “The pond has gotten much bigger,” Wallace says. “Instead of preaching, we’re singing in a choir.”

Here are three of Wallace’s tips for marketing a mission-driven company.

Keep packaging simple.

Peace Coffee’s best marketing investment to date was a 2018 package redesign, according to Wallace. The unclear nature of the company’s prior packaging meant people had to work too hard to figure out what was in the bag, she says. Now, it leads with the basics: it’s caffeinated, it tastes good and it’s fair-trade. Other details and initiatives went to the website in case consumers wants to learn more. Wallace suggests studying the packaging of larger brands in your industry for packaging inspiration. “Don’t be ashamed to go and study the brands that have deeper pockets,” Wallace says.

Make purchases fun for the customer.

When it comes to communicating the mission, Wallace says to keep it light. For example, she could talk to customers about the struggles of coffee farmers and climate change, but that’s not the message that goes to consumers because it’s overwhelming.

“We try to be fun, playful, and accessible and let people know that they’re doing good things by buying this product,” she says. “We’ll take care of the hard work.”

Focus on a singluar mission.

Wallace often sees new mission-driven businesses try to be perfect at everything from day one. “It’s really important to clearly define where and how you want to have an impact and not try to make every aspect of your business model the most impactful,” she says. For her, having a measurable impact that customers and employees can get behind all comes back to one mission: buying fair trade organic coffee. That single message gives everyone a clear goal to focus on.

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