The following is the text of a presentation for the First Asian Ikat Weavers Conference held by the Lake Sebu Indigenous Women Weavers’ Association (LASIWWAI) in the Philippines between April 17-19, 2012. I could not make the conference in person, but the presentation was made on my behalf by the organizers.
Threads of Life is a fairtrade-certified business that works with over 600 women weavers and their families on 11 Indonesian islands. These women are organized into 55 cooperatives and make high-quality natural-dyed traditional textiles that we sell through our gallery in Bali. We have been operating since 1998, and can sell everything these women make that meets our high quality control standards. We do not sell anywhere else. We have tried selling in the US and the UK, but have found that Bali is the best market. This is where we get the most customers.
We are sometimes asked to help other traditional textile organizations address marketing issues. One problem we frequently see is NGOs and community-based organizations that operate their businesses at a loss. In one extreme case, they paid the weavers more than they could re-sell the textiles for. I can understand how this happens. A community organization is focused on the welfare of its members. However, marketing success requires a focus on the needs of the customer. By contrast, when companies try to do community work, they usually get it wrong. This is because their primary concern is their customers and shareholders. So, for a business with a social mission, or a non-profit with a need to do business, there is a need to do something out of the ordinary.
Making a Profit
The first rule of business is to make a profit. A profit is needed to keep a business growing. In order to sell more textiles next year than this year, we have to buy more textiles from our weavers. To do this, more cash is needed. In the NGO world, “profit” can be almost a swear word. This is because in marginalized communities profit is often associated with exploitation. But the real question is about how to share profits fairly.
In the fairtrade movement profit sharing is often discussed. I have seen organizations calculate the hours taken to make a textile, and then work out a fair wage for their weavers’ work. The price is then decided by adding a “fair” profit onto these costs. This certainly leads to a good way of calculating operating costs, but is a poor way of setting a price. The calculated price can be so high that nobody buys the product and the project fails.
In reality, markets set prices. The price of a textile is whatever the market will bare for the quantity you are making. Working out what the market price is requires market research. What is the price of similar textiles with similar stories from elsewhere? The issue is then about how to share the sales income amongst everyone who worked to make and distribute the textile. If the weaver makes a low wage from this, then everyone in the marketing chain must work together to increase the value of the final product so that there is more money to share around.
Adding Value to Traditional Textiles
One of the aims of marketing is to add value to a product. For traditional textiles, and the marketing of other material expressions of traditional culture, I think adding value is a matter of adding values.
A defining aspect of the network of weavers’ cooperatives Threads of Life works with is a shared question. The weavers normally state it something like this: “We are told we are backwards and primitive because we want to keep our traditions and way of life. We are told that we must chose between keeping these traditions and joining modern society and the global economy. Why must we make this choice? Why can’t we do both? How do we express our culture and identity and make a living while doing so?”
I believe it is this question – How do we express our culture and identity and make a living while doing so? – that is the key to our marketing success because it communicates the values of the weavers in a way that potential customers can identify with.
A useful definition of marketing is “fulfilling your customers’ needs at a profit.” In order to do this we must first know what our customers needs are. Beyond the need for a good product at a marketable price, I suggest that the simplest need of all our customers is to participate in a meaningful story that makes them feel good about themselves. We therefore redefine marketing like this.
The weavers’ cooperatives’ definition of marketing becomes: “Profitably demonstrating that your cooperative’s values are aligned with and connected to those of your intermediaries and end customers.”
We become storytellers, and the products we sell are symbolic to our buyers of their desire to participate in our story. The weavers’ question – How do we express our culture and identity and make a living while doing so? – becomes our customers’ question, too.
For this to work it must be a conversation between equals. We are not selling the weavers’ poverty, or their illiteracy, or their poor health. Weaver, retailer and consumer must see each other as equals. We are all struggling to discover our identity and community in a rapidly changing world. We all feel that through mutual understanding and respect for each other’s needs and aspirations we can create a just and sustainable world. I think one way of establishing this conversation is through brand identity.
Here are a couple of definitions of branding from the Internet:
“The word brand has evolved to encompass identity — it affects the personality of a product, company or service. It is defined by a perception that your customers have about you.” [Wikipedia]
“Simply put, your brand is your promise to your customer. It tells them what they can expect from your products and services, and it differentiates you from your competitors. Your brand is about who you are, who you want to be, and who people perceive you to be.” [entrepreneur.com]
The key word for the purposes of our discussion is “identity”. A brand is a means of communicating identity and story. It is a way of communicating values so that others can chose to participate with us in expressing those values. It is how we do our marketing. Anyone who looks through Threads of Life’s website or visits our gallery leaves with a story about our brand. There are several threads to this story, and different themes will be of interest to different people. Some are interested in culture, others in livelihoods and fairtrade, some in the environmental aspect of the work. In each case we are inviting participation from potential customers.
The website passionbrand.com is well worth looking at. The book by the site’s authors is also excellent. The website starts out by saying:
“It’s a cynical world out there. Yet some brands inspire passionate advocacy in consumers and employees. These ‘Passion Brands’ have 5 things in common:
- They have something important to say about contemporary life
- They act out of beliefs, not just the latest focus group findings
- They are good at something that’s good for people – and stick to it
- They make sure the brand is understood throughout the business
- They are never self-righteous, boastful or dull”
Let’s look at these points one by one:
1. What is the important thing we have to say about contemporary life?
By supporting the contemporary expression of traditional culture through the textile arts we are also saying that the way contemporary life is eroding traditional culture is a problem. We are saying cultural diversity is valuable for all of humanity, not just the custodians of a particular tradition. We are saying that people are important.
2. Do we act out of our values? Do we hold our values even when that is not the easiest thing to do?
There was a measles epidemic in the Kalumpang region of West Sulawesi in 2010. When our field staff where there, a man came up to them asking for help. One of his daughters had just died of measles and the other was sick. His community had formed a team of stretcher-bearers to carry her on the 6-hour walk to the nearest doctor. He needed money for the doctor and medicine and asked Pung to buy one of his wife’s textiles. The textile was of poor quality and didn’t meet our quality control standards. With a heavy heart, Pung said, “I can’t buy the textile. But I know your wife. She is a good weaver. So I’ll give you an advance on her next cloth instead.” Pung found a solution that balanced our social and business values, and maintained the weaver’s dignity.
3. What are we good at that is good for people?
Exploring this idea in depth is one of the keys to marketing success. This is where we find our competitive advantage. We need to ask, what is it that our producers’ are good at? What is it that they are better at than others? What do we have to offer that no one else can offer in the marketplace?Most of the weavers we all work with live in remote areas with poor infrastructure. Fulfilling detailed orders for hundreds of items is often beyond our capacities. If we could fulfill the orders, we would have problems with shipping. And if there is demand, someone with better access to the infrastructure usually would take our business in the end. Our competitive advantage will seldom lie in high-volume, low-value markets.
Turning this problem on its head, we can ask, How do we make our weavers’ remoteness into an advantage? What nobody else can copy or do better than our producers, is our producers’ cultural integrity. Their ethnic identity differentiates them from other people. What they are really good at is being themselves! When the weavers’ textiles become a way of telling their stories they are doing something nobody else can do.
At Threads of Life the majority of our customers are from the USA, Australia, and Europe. There are many shops selling Indonesian textiles in Ubud, but people walk past them all to our gallery, which is at the end of a small side street. We are among the most expensive places they could shop. But they still come to see us because they want to hear the weavers’ stories and be part of those stories.
4. Is the brand – that is, our promise to our customers – understood by everyone in the organization? Are our values so important that we are trying to express them in every detail of what we do?
Our brand says that people are important, and that we all have the right to express our culture and identity. Our promise to our customers is that we will work together with our staff and producers towards making this happen.
A small example of this is how we organize our staff’s holidays. Most are Balinese and have complex and frequent ceremonial obligations. When there is a big ceremony, people take lots of time off but also need lots of money. Instead of cutting monthly wages for people who under-work because they have ceremonies, we only reconcile over- and under-time at the end of each year. We are open on national holidays too, so that staff can keep the holidays for when they need them. In this we express our value that culture is important.
5. Are we humble enough to recognize that truly embodying our values is difficult?
There is a line in Threads of Life’s mission statement that says, “Addressing shared challenges though a peer-to-peer process”. In this, we are again talking about our brand promise.At its core, Threads of Life is a learning organization. As weavers, as business owners and employees, and as retail customers – everyone involved in Threads of Life is learning how to respect each other’s needs and aspirations so that we can create a just and sustainable world. Our work is defined by shared questions about our common challenges, not by one group having answers to the other’s problems.
Some of what I’ve been sharing is just my opinion and what we have learned from experience in our business over the past fifteen years. It may or may not apply to other organizations. But there are perhaps three basic principles that I think are useful to everyone:
1. Work out what your values are, and which values connect you to your producers and customers.
2. Work out how to express those values in a way that invites enthusiastic participation from your producers and customers. If you do this well, people will seek you out. People are hungry for integrity.
3. And make sure you are making a profit, so that you can keep the vision growing.