It's hard to say if Madison's Just Coffee Cooperative has the best or the worst catchphrase in the history of advertising. The coffee roaster is the featured sponsor for one of the most popular downloads in iTunes, the WTF podcast (wtfpod.com). At the end of almost every show, host Marc Maron closes by loudly taking a sip of Just Coffee coffee and tells listeners, "Wait for it, wait for it.... Pow! I just shit my pants."
It's not conventional or particularly catchy, but it is apparently working. Just Coffee cofounder Mike Moon says he winced when he first heard the catchphrase but has grown to appreciate it. He notes that it's wholly Maron's invention.
Maron says the line is something that popped into his head one day and has stuck around. "I just have a great time saying it," he says. "I think of it as a play on the old-timey radio thing, where the DJ throws in a memorable tagline for a product."
Just Coffee has been working with Maron since 2009, when his career in comedy and radio had bottomed out. After several years of doing morning radio at the chaotic, left-leaning Air America radio network, he was demoted to producing a webcast from the lunchroom. He and on-air partner Sam Seder had no advertisers when Moon emailed to say how much he liked the new show. In closing, he offhandedly suggested "some sort of sponsorship of your show - maybe we could even pay in coffee."
Maron and Seder were thrilled. "We had a failing show a couple of people liked, and we couldn't give away advertising if we tried," says Maron. "We were mostly excited because he was sending us coffee."
"We've tried a couple of other sponsorships, but nothing has worked like this," says Moon. "I think it has something to do with who he is that makes his listeners loyal and supportive. He's just completely open and emotionally naked, and people respond to it."
The WTF podcast has been lauded in The New York Times. Such celebrities as Chris Rock, Robin Williams, Louis CK and Judd Apatow talk to Maron about their craft, their demons and whatever else comes up.
The relationship between Just Coffee and WTF did endure a rough patch early on. Just Coffee did not have a system in place to pay Maron in an efficient manner, and the frustration boiled over to the point where Maron said on the podcast: "You've gotta understand the people I deal with are old hippies, and they live in Wisconsin. It's like 'a global business model?' Dude."
Moon and Maron have since worked out a simple arrangement in which Maron gets 10% of the income from the "WTF Roast" - identical to the Co-op's "Revolution Roast" except that it comes in a different bag and costs 10% more.
Because Just Coffee sponsored him at his lowest point, he gives them special treatment. Other sponsors get plugged at the start of the show, and Maron clearly alerts listeners that he's going to present them with ads. The Just Coffee plug he works into the show more naturally. "He's clear that a little bit of every sale goes back to him, which I think is one reason it works," says Moon. "I think his fans like that they can help him personally."
Just Coffee imports its beans from small-scale cooperative coffee growers, mostly from Latin America, and distributes through cooperatives, coffeeshops and other outlets around the upper Midwest. The business is still primarily focused on distribution to regional cooperatives, but it hopes to earn 10% of sales from the website (justcoffee.coop) in two to three years.
Just Coffee operates a modest coffee roasting operation in the semi-industrial area between Williamson Street and East Washington Avenue and shares office space in a building a few blocks away that houses a number of other socially minded companies. According to Moon, the top Google searches that lead people to the Just Coffee website include "WTF Coffee," "Marc Maron Coffee" and "WTF Blend."
In addition to the brand recognition, the WTF Blend has brought in over $50,000 in sales, more than 10% of all sales on the site.
For Maron, part of Just Coffee's appeal is that it's progressive, keeping him in touch with his lefty roots. Maron's former partner Seder also works with Just Coffee on his Majority Report podcast, and says Just Coffee's political stance is an important part of the appeal to his audience.
A television show based on Maron's life is in the works, and Moon hopes it will include gratuitous shots of Just Coffee bags. However, Maron's not ready to extend the relationship that far. "Not gonna happen," he says. "Tell Mike nice try, though."