A good friend who resides in Zurich recently told me of a discussion two people were having, where they asked each other “who has the better chocolate: Switzerland or Belgium?” I retorted, “should the question not be who has the best cocoa, since this is what makes chocolate? And if so, should it not be a choice between Ghana and the Ivory Coast?” Ghana and the Ivory Coast combined provide approximately 60% of the world’s cocoa, and so as the backbone and key source of the raw commodity, I considered my question fundamentally more appropriate if we are speaking about ‘having’ as opposed to ‘packaging’ chocolate
However, after these initial thoughts, more came to mind. Despite the undeniable fact of where cocoa is sourced, were the individuals in Zurich asking the question that the everyday person cares more about? For example, how many of us in cities know specifically where our milk comes from, as opposed to where we prefer to buy it? Do we consider who manufacturers the best batteries and silicon chip, or rather which phone maker has the best device? Or using another Africa related case, and coffee snobs aside, does the average person know which country their coffee beans comes from, or do they only know which brand they prefer to drink?
“Despite the undeniable fact of where cocoa is sourced, were the individuals in Zurich asking the question that the everyday person cares more about? For example… Do we consider who manufacturers the best batteries and silicon chip, or rather which phone maker has the best device?”
Fortunately, I recently came across an almost perfect case I could use to anchor the above thoughts, in the form of a mineral water brand called Liquid Death. Water is one of the most abundant and naturally occurring elements on our planet, and in its clean drinking form it is said to be (virtually) tasteless and odourless; thereby making pedantic questions about where its sourced or Coca-Cola vs. Pepsi style taste tests irrelevant.
“People think that taste is why things are successful or unsuccessful, or why one brand is better than another. All of the data shows that [this] is not even close to the case. Monster didn’t become a $50bn company because it tastes so much better than Red Bull. Most people couldn’t even pick out an energy drink in a blind taste test if their life depended on it.” Mike Cessario’s own company illustrates the veracity of these words that he stated in a CNBC ‘Make It’ feature. In 2017 Mike, a former Netflix creative director, founded the mineral water brand Liquid Death after asking himself “what’s the dumbest possible name for [the] super [healthiest], safest beverage possible?” Far from just a gimmick, the company began sales in 2019 and made $100,000 in its first month, sold approximately $130 million in 2022, has so far raised $195 million, and is currently valued at $700 million.
“People think that taste is why things are successful or unsuccessful, or why one brand is better than another. All of the data shows that [this] is not even close to the case. Monster didn’t become a $50bn company because it tastes so much better than Red Bull. Most people couldn’t even pick out an energy drink in a blind taste test if their life depended on it.”
Credit: Liquid Death
Liquid Death has indicated that a product’s source, taste, and – within reason(!) – quality are not as high, as we might have thought, on the list of what end consumers – real people – actually care about. When we drill down to it everyone, everywhere, cares about relationships. This is true whether or not we consider it to be rational, right, proper, stupid or anything else. This is also true for all us from shopkeeper to banker, and scientist to poet, and true whether we are aware of it, or choose to admit it, or not. Summarising his thoughts on this through the lens of Liquid Death’s success, Mike stated “at the end of the day we’re really creating an entertainment company and a water company. We don’t want to create marketing, we want to actually entertain people and make them laugh, in service of a brand; and if you can do that, they’re going to love your brand.”
So what does this all mean? Firstly, and more trivially, it means that the question the two in Zurich asked to each other was more relevant than the alternative I quickly proposed, given the general behaviour and thought patterns of end consumers (and people!). Their question was akin to someone asking if you prefer Apple or Samsung phones, whereas I was in essence asking if you prefer batteries from Amperex Technology or Samsung SDI; or perhaps worse still, do you prefer silicon from China or Russia! The question of choice between Ghana and the Ivory Coast for cocoa is only really pertinent to the Swiss and Belgian chocolate brand, in the same way that for batteries is pertinent to Apple and Samsung, and not necessarily so to you and me.
Secondly, and more pressing for Ghana, the Ivory Coast and most other African nations, is that selling commodities – regardless of the volume – can only build your relevance so far and in certain domains. The two countries’ vast cocoa wealth gives them macroeconomic importance. But real global significance – or people power – is held by those who can move audiences. Those who have it move people with the weight of their finances (hard power), and/or their cultural influence formed through positive perception-inducing narratives (soft power). Therefore, regardless of their resources, until African nations build compelling, consumer-focused global brands, their relevance will mostly be under the surface and expressed in the form of impressive economic statistics.
“…regardless of their resources, until African nations build compelling, consumer-focused global brands, their relevance will mostly be under the surface and expressed in the form of impressive economic statistics.”
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