Divine Chocolate Touts The Conscientious Business Model

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Though she concedes that the fair trade market is relatively small in the U.S., Smith thinks the growth is promising. “Fair trade is not as big yet as it is in Europe, particularly in the U.K.,” she said, adding that the segment has been on her radar. “We’ve seen fair trade products at our [Sweets & Snacks Expo] for the last few years. I think folks are aware of it and some consumers would be interested.” Smith points to the ethical standards of brands like Cadbury’s Green & Blacks organic chocolate and Hershey’s Dagoba as examples of interest in the segment.

Retailers also see increasing potential for the category. “The Food Emporium customer is more aware of what Fair Trade is and what it entails then ever before,” said Steven Kravets, grocery buyer for the Food Emporium supermarket chain. “As we bring in more and more items with the Fair Trade logo and story, it will only strengthen the knowledge.”

Today, Divine Chocolate is sold in natural stores like Whole Foods and Earth Fare as well as regional chains like Wegman’s and Publix and specialty outlets like Borders Books, Nordstrom’s Espresso Bar and movie theaters. Growth plans for the company, which expects to post sales of around $4 million dollars for the 2009-2010 fiscal year, are to saturate the specialty market and spread throughout traditional locations.

As was the case in the U.K., it’s the story behind Divine that has helped set the brand apart. While the ownership model has proven valuable in securing shelf space at the specialty level, it has been vital in tempting conventional grocers. “When you get to that end of the market, you’re having to differentiate yourself in a market where differentiation is usually done by price point,” Gorman said. “So being unique and having a unique story about the farmer ownership has been a major asset.”

Like Kravets, who deems Divine’s chocolates “very good in taste and quality,” Biagio Abbatiello, owner of Biagio Fine Chocolates in Washington, D.C., said the company has all of the characteristics for success in this competitive market. “If a chocolate made from a bean to bar is lacking in complexity, not priced correctly and does not have a great story behind it, it will have a tough time with discerning customers,” he said. “Whenever we feature Divine Chocolate in our tastings, it always shines against some very heavy competition.”

As a small company, Divine relies on personal interactions like these to further its brand message. In lieu of pricey ad campaigns, the brand participates in in-store events and regional fairs. “People have a really irrational attachment in some ways to the chocolate they grew up with. Our task is to say, here’s something else you could try and here’s another reason to try it,” Gorman said. “It gives us an opportunity to tell them the story and that’s much more impactful than advertising at this stage.”

Divine’s target consumers are people who enjoy high-quality chocolate but more specifically, are content consumers. The company and its message tend to resonate most with people who hunger to learn more about the world, are well informed and active in their local communities. “Having tapped into that demographic, the flip side of wanting to know is wanting to share,” said Gorman. “So for everyone that we can get to change their mind, they’ll tell other people. That’s how you really start to go deeper into the population.”

People are not only talking about the brand and its message here in the U.S., the story of Divine and Kuapa Kokoo has garnered attention among fellow farmers in Africa. “Farmers that aren’t a part of Kuapa have started to question other licensed buying companies about why they don’t [operate in the same manner],” said Gorman. “And that’s where change begins to happen in an industry.” Recently Kuapa was able to help a farmer’s organization in Sierra Leone become a top-notch fair trade supplier.

Through Kuapa’s mentoring, those farmers were able to produce their first container of high-quality cocoa. To aid those farmers, Divine purchased that first batch and has plans to continue to source there. “It’s one of my favorite things that Divine has done with Kuapa because it shows the value of farmers owning their own brand,” she said. “They didn’t just lend assistance to these farmers, they provided them a market, which is really invaluable.”

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