Poor people's IP: the case of Fiji water

 

A while ago I wrote about Fiji Water and how it came to be. After arguing with friends over whether all these bottles truly originate in Fiji I did a bit of research and here is what I came up with

 

I hope to start a discussion thread at OAC with a follow up I am working on about the efforts of producers from "Least Developed Countries" (LDCs) to own, manage and earn income from intellectual property (IP) in export markets such as the U.S. and EU. I believe that understanding of the role "intangible value" and management of intangibles plays in modern commerce and development strategies can tell us a great deal about world economy and our current moment in history.

 

It's a story that can be told in many ways. Movies should not be the only ones with trailers:

 

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Comment by Keith Hart on July 21, 2011 at 5:03pm
Well, Boris, I leave you to guess with me why your intriguing post and follow-up have not generated a flood of commentary. If you feel up to it, we could think of launching a presentation and online seminar late August or early September. Contact me (on behalf of the OAC Press team) privately. And thanks for this. I am sure you have had many more readers than commentators.
Comment by John McCreery on July 14, 2011 at 3:22am

May I ask a question about the necktie graph of the relative shares of production costs, distribution margin, and intangible value? Since the neckties are the same size, they convey the impression that the total size of the market remained unchanged from 1982 to 2007. Thus, simultaneously, they suggest that producer incomes have fallen, while the shares of distribution and intangible value have increased. I am not suggesting that producers shouldn't get a larger share of the total necktie; just wondering how much the total market grew in the 25 years in question.

 

Comment by John McCreery on July 14, 2011 at 3:16am
Boris, as someone who spent over a decade working for a major Japanese ad agency, I am finding your tales about global brand equity utterly fascinating. Keep up the good work.
Comment by Boris Popovic on July 14, 2011 at 1:07am

[Part IV ....]

 

And perhaps the most important ingredient, as you rightly remind: Timing, indeed, is everything.

Comment by Boris Popovic on July 13, 2011 at 2:02am

[Final portion - part III]

 

I want to re-produce that text at OAC in full, with graphics, images, multi-media and try to make it a basis for a forum discussion. I would reach out to specific OAC folks who could be interested. I also see ways of attracting a lot more of us, young “development-industrial complex” minions into these discussions. It’s a world full of people with a lot to say, a lot to ask, a lot to think about, but who lack the time and proper forum to plug into and keep coming back. There is a huge force there to be harnessed. The catch-22 is their sheer busy-ness managing, coordinating never ending projects and the apparent uselessness and time waste in academic arm-chairing. Yet, they long for a break to stop for a moment, have a bit of time and help to finally engage all these questions, confusions, insights  bubbling up in their skulls week after week, meeting after meeting, field trip after field trip. It would be my practical answer to your question in the thread regarding OAC’s birthday, started by Nikos a few weeks ago. I think after this more humble step (I expect it to be, of course, a mixed bag) I would be ready to turn your and others’ feedback into a working paper that would engage some original data from my encounters with Ethiopian fine coffee and African IP Trust; something along the lines of describing three unlikely encounters with IP and ponderings about value, development, neoliberalism: Ethiopian fine coffee, Fiji water, and the Kalahari San’s saga of worldwide licensing of a patent based on xhoba cactus (Comaroffs). Of course, behind all of this lurk my “ethnographic dreams” of documenting one of these stories as a proper anthropologist,  from stakeholder meetings under a tree, bureaucratic wars within export promotion commissions, to dazzling presentations at brand strategy firm headquarters, focus groups, implementation of marketing plans, licensor-licensee interaction, “production” of intangibles, efforts to boost confidence at the farm gate to charge more as export price rises. This ambition and my above enemies provide for a particular kind of torture. But what else is there but to try. When I do the up-and-down scaling right, there is a way. I think you get a sense of how much I’m grateful to you for providing these tools and language with which to face the torture.

Comment by Boris Popovic on July 13, 2011 at 2:01am

[Part cut off in the earlier post]

 

All of this began as I found myself working for a small NGO trying to do something never done before: uniting of the Ethiopian fine coffee sector and de-linking from world commodity markets and tying of pricing to retail through management of three particular brands, establishment of an umbrella brand, and building of a world-wide network of licensed distributors. The case to be made was that IP can, in certain cases, have a poverty alleviating impact (for about five million people producing and exporting three particular kinds of coffee) by not only increasing income but also by making it more secure in ways that commodity traps cannot. A giant clash with Starbucks followed and a mad worldwide public campaign, with Ethiopia emerging victorious, but, of course, the story is complicated and largely untold. Then also came my witnessing of licensing revenue streams for Uruguayan Guyaki for the worldwide use of their name (re: yerba mate), all sorts of feasibility studies on Madagascar essential oils, Mozambique-Tanzania joint strategy on blackwood for woodwind instruments, Ugandan vanilla, Jamaican beauty products, Maasai approaches to enter into licensing agreements with various companies using their IP (I fully agree with the unease that the use of this terms causes) and so on. This was accompanied with a wide range of training designed to turn various African stakeholders (another instance of unease) into brand managers, licensee liaisons, supply chain analysts and IP biz strategists. Then there is, of course, the encounter of those folks with PR, advertising, and law firms, providing pro-bono focus groups, brand collaterals, defense of trademarks and such. I am aware of my privileged access to a particularly interesting, revealing story of our moment. As a non-academic, I’m also obsessed with multi-media storytelling and another wet dream is telling this story in an Adam Curtis way, which is yet another discovery I owe to you.

 

I have two great enemies: I am a very slow writer (I admire and envy your pace and output) and I’m intimidated by what I don’t know. But that’s my own battle and OAC is my chosen ground where to face these villains. (My C.L.R. James type of letter to you is still outstanding.) The prospect of engaging Mintz!, Sahlins!, Applbaum! Forster! (you!), makes me jump around with a smile. My plan is to finish my follow up on Fiji Water, which basically attempts to answer the question that inevitably bubbles up after reading that initial bit of research I did: so what? It’s an attempt at an anatomy and biography of a brand, “brand equity,” showing what it means to be an “IP colony” but also what “Corporate Social Responsibility 2.0” might look like – in, indeed, a neoliberal world. Only in such a world, I am aware, where labor is a global buyer’s market, is something like the below possible:

 

I want to re-produce that text at OAC in full, with graphics, images, multi-media and try to make it a basis for a forum discussion. I would reach out to specific OAC folks who could be interested. I also see ways of attracting a lot more of us, young “development-industrial complex” minions into these discussions. It’s a world full of people with a lot to say, a lot to ask, a lot to think about, but who lack the time and proper forum to plug into and keep coming back. There is a huge force there to be harnessed. The catch-22 is their sheer busy-ness managing, coordinating never endi

Comment by Boris Popovic on July 13, 2011 at 1:57am

Prof. Hart, thank you for these very kind words and for the wealth of leads and inspiration you seem to produce in an instant. I’ve been thinking about how to do my part in generating discussion and even collaboration at OAC. Way more thinking than actual contributing, as it’s obvious.  The idea of a working paper and a seminar has been on my mind for many months. More than anything, it is my self-conscious awareness of my many blind spots in theory that make me continuously shy away from bolder propositions. The possibility of hearing from Sahlins, Mintz, Foster, and especially Applbaum sends me at once into a happy frenzy and self-doubt whether I really have anything to say worthy of such attention. When all that settles, I know I do, if for nothing else but for being a witness to some of these “pro-poor IP” efforts; my true mission/challenge/homework here is this personal up and down scaling of the world on this particular topic. I cannot overstate the guidance from dead ends and dark corners that my endless digging through the Memory Bank has provided.

 

This initial background to the story of Fiji Water owes its key points to Martha Kaplan’s 2007 Current Anthropology paper. Her admiration for Robert Forster’s work is clear. His 2005 Anthropology Today paper The Work of the New Economy: Consumers, Brands, and Value Creation I’ve read more than once. Comaroffs have just come out with a fascinating polemic, Ethnicity, Inc. It raises all the questions that have been chasing each other in my head since about 2005 when I, a D.C. international development staffer, “fell” onto the topic and caught a virus that has been fueling the obsession ever since. Kalman Applbaum ‘s working paper for the 2008 LSE Rethinking Economies conference I keep rereading monthly it seems. It’s now paired with your paper on IP. “The Marketing Era” is the obvious destination. I had to first get my hands on Dr. Hahn and your recent history/critique of economic anthropology. It’s the only reading on my endless D.C. subway rides.  I know very well that I’m also heading towards an anthropological theory of value and towards David Graeber. Perhaps all roads lead there. William Mazzarela’s (who I believe introduces you in your lecture on national capitalism) Very Bombay has provided a template for my ethnographic dreams, as, of course, did Mintz’s treatment of sugar and his biography of a sugar cane worker. And then there is also something to be done with business schools and the likes of Douglas Holt of Oxford’s Said and others working in what is labeled as sociocultural wing of marketing. I’m aware of the blind spots they bring but also find that Holt’s, for instance, critique of anthropological engagement with branding (re: David Wengrow’s Prehistories of Commodity Branding) is on point. I was not aware of Michael Brown’s work, thank you! Same with Noam Yurian; I would love to get my hand on his dissertation and will reach out.

 

All of this began as I found myself working for a small NGO trying to do something never done before: uniting of the Ethiopian fine coffee sector and de-linking from world commodity markets and tying of pricing to retail through management of three particular brands, establishment of an umbrella brand, and building of a world-wide network of licensed distributors. The case to be made was that IP can, in certain cases, have a poverty alleviating impact (for about five million pe

Comment by Keith Hart on July 10, 2011 at 2:15pm

Well, this is a big topic, Boris. You have crammed a lot into this post and it's antecedent on Superculture, perhaps more than your average OAC skimmer is willing to take on board. Also attention drops at this time of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. Timing is everything. Perhaps you would be willing to put together a Workling Paper for the OAC Press series and we could run an online seminar on this theme.

My first thought is to wonder what Marshall Sahlins would think of all this. It ought to be a natural (sic) link between his interest in Fijian history and ethnography and his critique of bourgeois culture. Sidney Mintz might be persuaded to offer some thoughts too.

For the more academically minded, a link to Michael F. Brown's book and blog might be interesting.His 1998 article, Can culture be copyrighted? (with CA discussion) is as good a place to start as any.

Robert J. Foster is a leading exponent of the anthropology of brands, as in Coca-globalization and his more recent work on corporations. Noam Yuran's unpublished thesis has some of the most far-reaching and distinctive thinking on brands that I have come across lately. You might approach him. Both of them are OAC members.

My feeling is that most anthropologists and anthropology-sympathizers are on the wrong side when it comes to intellectual property. Asserting native ownership rights reproduces the international IP regime on which corporate capitalism is based today. I wrote a short book about how democratic culture is corrupted by collapsing the distinction between artificial and real persons in law (summary here). I posted this essay on anthropology and IP five years ago. I tried to get it into Current Anthropology, but it was roundly attacked and I didn't have the stomach to persevere.

So, I obviously share your interest in the topic and admire the work you have done so far on it. How to generate a discussion on OAC? That's another question.

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