Lifestyle Journalist

M. Astella Saw writes about travel, food, retail, design and trends in the lifestyle sectors. Contact me at m.astella.saw (at) gmail.com

Co-opetition

Forward-thinking food and beverage brands are increasingly coming together to eat, drink and be merry – and to run a profitable business along the way. Welcome to Co-opetition.

In today’s crowded food and beverage sector, brands and businesses that may otherwise be considered competitors are increasingly banding together to build on one another’s strengths, and to profit from collaborative – rather than competitive – advantage.

Common goals
‘The new capitalism is about a common purpose, it’s about having common goals, it’s about sharing thinking,’ says Rob Schuham, co-founder of Common, an initiative to connect networks of creative people and progressive businesses to solve social problems. The founders, who include former Crispin Porter + Bogusky partner Alex Bogusky, call Common ‘the world’s first collaborative brand’.

One of Common’s early projects is Coffee Commons, a small community of roasters and baristas who are working together, across company lines, towards the pursuit of one common goal – the promotion of great coffee. The group, which includes James Hoffman of Square Mile Coffee in London, Benjamin Kaminsky of Ritual Roasters in San Francisco and Peter Giuliano of Counter Culture Coffee in Durham, North Carolina, recently staged a Coffee Common event at the TED conference in Long Beach, California.

Strength in numbers
In a business world based on Co-opetition, we note the formation of networks of mutually supportive businesses who recognise that there is strength in numbers.

‘For some people, it’s about wanting to be part of a gang with opportunities to do more,’ says Petra Barran, founder of eat.st, a collaborative effort to unite London’s food truck vendors and cultivate a more vibrant urban foodscape. ‘The more good traders there are, the better our chances are of making an impact.’

Similarly, consider the London Brewers Alliance (LBA), which exists to preserve, promote and celebrate contemporary brewing in the city.

‘By clubbing together, we are able to promote London beer for London,’ says Paddy Johnson, master brewer at Windsor & Eton Brewery and a founding member of the LBA. ‘That’s very difficult to do individually.’ Thanks to the joint promotions the LBA regularly organises, such as summertime Friday-night events at the London Zoo, sales enquiries at Windsor & Eton have gone up as a direct result of the company’s involvement in the organisation, Johnson says.

Shared expertise
Mutual support is a key reason why Co-opetition is so appealing, particularly to independent entrepreneurs and small businesses that may lack the funds and access to knowledge bigger brands take for granted.

Through the LBA, for instance, members gain the chance to learn from one another’s expertise – to be, as founding member Phil Lowry says, ‘on the phone to one another’.

‘We [at The Kernel] have no experience brewing at all, so the initial impetus for us is of being able to learn, to meet our peers,’ says Evin O’Riordain, owner of The Kernel Brewery. ‘It’s really good to have a community around you to help with ingredients or paperwork – to have people who’ve gone through it before to give you advice.’

Collaborative creation
Co-opetition is not just about sharing advice but showing what you can do together, too.

Eat.st recently organised a mobile vendors’ parade where a diverse group of traders – selling anything from Kolkata street food and Vietnamese snacks to an entire Portuguese roast hog – took turns catering in a pub garden in south London.

Meanwhile, the LBA’s collaborative brew sessions see member breweries putting their collective experience, malt and hops to the test in creating a limited-edition drink. To date, the collaborative brews have resulted in a Collaborative Porter and London Brick, a red rye ale, both available for sale to the public.

Brandtocratic business
With its focus on collaboration, connections and openness, Co-opetition is a sign of things to come in an increasingly Brandtocratic world. As its advocates stress, the trend is about healthy competition encouraging a vibrant market where all players benefit.

‘Partnering with other companies is perfectly, bleedingly natural to me,’ Lowry says. ‘People want to bring their experiences to the fore, and people want to learn. I can’t see what’s to be lost.’

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15 July 2011