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How a French ‘kooky cookie’ brand cracked the US market

© Yona Helaoua

Text by Yona HELAOUA

Latest update : 2016-02-04

Cookies produced by Paris-based manufacturer Michel and Augustin are now being sold in all US Starbucks stores. In a new cheeky ad campaign, the brand is using humour and its unique success story to lure American consumers.

The holiday gathering hosted by the French ambassador to Washington, usually a rather staid affair, this year involved electronic music and a presentation of the American success story of Michel and Augustin, a French cookie brand now distributed in 23 countries.

The firm’s success shows how "French innovation and entrepreneurial spirit [can] conquer the US market", French Ambassador Gérard Araud said in his speech at the January 14 event.

The brand has used an innovative approach to expand its presence on the American market. Charlotte C., the French communications manager for Michel and Augustin’s US division, has headed a social media campaign that uses humour (the brand's tagline is "Two kooky cookies") and the firm’s unique success story to lure American consumers.

© Yona Helaoua | Charlotte and company event manager David call on the ambassador’s guests to celebrate #PowerFrance, a social media campaign promoting French businesses, on January 14 in Washington.

Michel and Augustin cookies have been available at the more than 7,600 Starbucks locations across the United States since January 5. And yet this massive distribution deal with the multinational coffee giant began with an unexpected phone call on a Thursday in June 2015.

#AllezHowardUnCafé

An assistant to Howard Schultz, the Starbucks CEO, called to request samples from the small French firm; a tasting committee was to meet the following Monday. Despite having dreamed of a Starbucks deal for 10 years, we had never succeeded in convincing the company’s French teams to meet with us, Charlotte said. “So this phone call was an incredible opportunity for us.”

The Paris-based team then made a decision that became a major coup: rather than sending Starbucks a package of samples, "which would have cost €1,000", Charlotte and her colleague bought two tickets to Seattle, where Starbucks’ headquarters is located. They brought with them a camera, a microphone and a few boxes of cookies, and looked to meet the big boss in person. To help them in their mission they launched the Twitter campaign #AllezHowardUnCafé (Come for a coffee, Howard), publicly inviting the CEO to meet with them for coffee and a cookie. Within 48 hours, the hashtag had been retweeted hundreds of times.

The Michel and Augustin team filmed every stage of their journey – from their departure from Charles de Gaulle airport to their arrival at Starbucks headquarters – as a series of mini-documentaries. Their hundreds of Twitter fans encouraged the US brand to receive the plucky French bakers.

But not everything went smoothly. Just as their plane landed in Seattle, Charlotte received a reproachful phone call from the Starbucks communications department: The company did not appreciate being confronted with such a public demand for a meeting with its CEO.

Despite Starbucks’ initial refusal, the two entrepreneurs were received a few hours later on the advice of the boss’s wife, who had seen the #AllezHowardUnCafé hashtag on Twitter.

"He was convinced by our entrepreneurial spirit, and found that we also had a great foundation," said Charlotte. Public pressure from the Twittersphere may have also played a part in securing the invitation.

© Photo courtesy Michel and Augustin | Charlotte meets Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, in Seattle in June 2014.

After conducting two successful test phases in June and October 2015 – the cookies were first offered at 25 Starbucks locations in Manhattan – all Starbucks stores now offer Michel and Augustin’s products.

According to the National Association of Food Industries, the United States is now the 7th-largest consumer of French food products, and French exports of foodstuffs to the United States increased by 23% between 2014 and 2015.

But even if French products are attractive to Americans, French firms still have to know how to sell themselves. "Unfortunately, [French companies] are known for producing beautiful products, but not always being pleasant or able to respond to our emails within 48 hours, especially in August. And that worries the Americans, who want highly reactive partners,” said Pauline Oudin, director of Sopexa USA and a consultant in export and distribution.

But Oudin said that Michel and Augustin’s unorthodox communications strategy successfully addressed corporate America’s concerns.

“By demonstrating publicly on social networks that they were ready to move, and do whatever it took to get noticed,  Michel and Augustin representatives brilliantly played the role of the eager startup, which Americans love."

Kosher certification

As with any export, Michel et Augustin had to adapt to the local market. The company had to get kosher certification to sell its cookies at Starbucks. "This involved having a rabbi visit our production sites," explained Charlotte. For now, only the company’s dark chocolate and lemon meringue biscuits are sold in the United States. And some recipes – its caramel products, for example – must be reworked because some of its ingredients are banned in the US.

Despite these minor adjustments, the experience has been 100% positive. "Sales are very good," the Washington team said, without offering specific figures. The team is eager to "offer the expertise of French baking abroad".

For Michel and Augustin, Starbucks was the "icing on the cake" after a year of painstaking work. "This has doubled our sales points worldwide, our production has multiplied by 14," said Charlotte.

And the firm’s ambitions are not letting up. For the year ahead, Michel and Augustin is already eyeing "a second big US contract with a distributor like Whole Foods, Target or Walmart", Charlotte said.

It all began with a phone call ... (video in French)

This article was translated from the original in French.

Date created : 2016-02-04

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