Developing an anti-system food brand

A success story in France since 2016, the model has already expanded in nine other countries always with the core idea of building a local consumer community in charge of every aspect of the product development. The community starts by voting for a product line, then builds and publishes an online questionnaire to decide on all product attributes. An optimum retail price is then calculated. They develop the product with local producers and processors, find retailers and ultimately convince a larger community to buy it. Only two products, milk and eggs, have finished this whole development process in Germany.
Nicolas Barthelmé is a former marketing executive who has lived and worked in Germany for twenty years. In 2019, he was seduced by the concept of the French “brand” C’est qui le patron (which translates to Who’s the Boss in English, and Du bist hier der Chef in German) that he found innovative, even audacious. So much so that the Frenchman decided to change career “switching back to the consumer side” as he says. In charge of replicating the initiative in Germany for the past two years, he wants to empower German consumers and give new meaning to what they eat.

Demand for transparency goes beyond German cultural patterns

From the beginning, Nicolas Barthelmé believed that the German would also welcome this model as it is based on strong and universal values of transparency, fairness, sustainability, supporting producers, and co-creation. However, each culture is different, and the German consumer’s motivation is more oriented towards environmental protection and animal welfare, whereas, in France, the fair remuneration and well-being of the producer is more important. Despite the integral connection between consumption and farming, there is no close relationship between German society and farmers, for several reasons. Through co-creation, the movement intends to bridge the rural-urban divide and help struggling farmers (who have recently started to revolt against their cost increases and low retail prices).

15,000 German people have already voted

How come so many people are willing to pay farmers and producers a premium for milk and eggs in a competitive market that invented the discount business model? 

When asked this, Nicolas Barthelmé replies that while known for being accustomed to low prices, the attitudes of German consumers are slowly changing. They increasingly say they want to know more about the product origin and what system they are supporting. And the Covid-19 pandemic has promoted these changes. Firstly, it shone a light on the abattoirs’ exploitative conditions. Secondly, more German farmers have been selling direct to consumers who are getting increasingly into local food from an accountable source.

For him, more German consumers today, across a diversity of consumer targets, prefer human-sized farms, respect for quality and the environment, and support measures for biodiversity and animal welfare. And hopefully, retailers will soon get involved too.

Co-operation and solidarity rather than competition and profit: is it an anti-capitalist movement?

The problem is that today capitalism is not transparent enough. Where do the profits go? Where does our money go? Are big groups reinvesting the money they earn in social projects?... According to Nicolas, not really, and that is conflicting more and more with consumers’ values.

Removing the barriers of retailers

The German retail market has been the bottleneck of the initiative so far. Rewe and four other German retailers are showing interest but are not real partners yet. Products are not nationally listed. In France, a key success factor was that the leaders of the Carrefour group have supported the consumer-led brand from the beginning – under the condition that the leaders of the initiative would not earn a cent of the premium price paid by consumers.

Another barrier for retailers is that the traditional one-to-one negotiation is no longer valid. There are now four people who are provided with a seat at the table – the consumer, the producer, the manufacturer, and the retailer. To deliver a fair margin throughout the value chain, each has a say. It demands the retail market to change, and it takes time.

What about other countries outside France and Germany?

Each country works on its food favourites: Greece started with olive oil, feta cheese and yogurt while Germany will continue with potatoes. Besides, some communities are larger, for example in Germany. Countries are not equally receptive to a food cause. In the UK, they are also facing issues with Brexit and an extremely high private labels’ market share. 

Nicolas Barthelmé says he is confident in the international success of the movement though given the universal values shared. Regardless of where they live, many consumers have real questions about what they are buying and eating.