When a frog is more than just a frog

The merger between the Rainforest Alliance and UTZ led to much soul searching about the NGO's brand and vision

The merger of the Rainforest Alliance and Dutch certifier of sustainable farming UTZ made perfect sense from a business point of view but when two leading non-governmental organisations come together, consideration also must be given to the emotional side.

The Rainforest Alliance and UTZ are natural bedfellows with similar goals. They both seek to combat key issues such as poverty, deforestation, and climate change, and by joining together, they found they could widen their respective reach and better combat the world’s increasing environmental and ethical challenges.

For the Rainforest Alliance, which was perceived to work only on the conservation side, that means being able to use UTZ’s expertise of working directly with farmers and producers to help improve supply chains and prevent deforestation, whilst UTZ, which traditionally had a more B2B audience, can take advantage of the Rainforest Alliance’s long-standing consumer brand recognition.

Utilising the respective strengths of both organisations also creates a single auditing process for certification which makes it easier for companies to achieve proven sustainability credentials, and reduces the costs and administration burden for more than 180,000 cocoa, coffee and tea farmers certified under both standards.

However, bringing both organisations together under the umbrella brand Rainforest Alliance in a way that did not lose the heart of either in the eyes of their stakeholders was no insignificant task. They each had a distinct identity.

‘It felt deeper than just coming up with a new logo and colour palette,’ says Jungwon Kim, head of creative and editorial at Rainforest Alliance. ‘It was essentially an existential exercise before determining how you want to express yourself to the world.’

She describes the struggle between maintaining the Alliance’s message of biodiversity, and its attachment to its frog mascot, and integrating the ‘vibrant and strong internal culture’ of UTZ. It was always part of the plan to keep the Rainforest Alliance name and logo due to its strong brand recognition, but it was also important to freshen it up to reflect the merger and make everyone feel welcome.

It felt like we were stuck with this symbol that was depressing, that dies when ecosystems are failing. But then we said Hang on, we also know that frogs come back when an ecosystem regains its health

Kim and her team jumped straight in by considering the frog. What did it mean in its current context? ‘Initially, more than 30 years ago now, the old Rainforest Alliance took the frog as its mascot and integrated it into the logo because the frog is an indicator species,’ she explains.

‘When an ecosystem is in poor health, they die rapidly. They are among the very first animals to die. They’re extremely sensitive and because they are amphibious, they also pick up changes in the water as well as on land.

‘So, we started to really look at the frog deeply and realised that our old frog looked like a victim. He looked like the thing that would die when something was going wrong. As such, we didn’t feel it really matched the leadership and dynamism that our stakeholders want us to portray.’


After countless surveys and interviews with everyone from farmers to the wider public, what emerged was an ‘almost unanimous’ image of the Rainforest Alliance as a leader. The team began to think differently about the frog – as an indicator species, frogs symbolise health as well as decay.

‘It was almost like a Gestalt shift,’ says Kim. ‘You see the rabbit or the duck, but it’s hard to see them both at the same time. But when you decide to see the rabbit, then the drawing becomes a rabbit. That’s what happened with the frog. It felt like we were stuck with this symbol that was depressing, that dies when ecosystems are failing. But then we said Hang on, we also know that frogs come back when an ecosystem regains its health, when it is restored.

‘We began to see the frog as a leader. That was the key that unlocked our process with our artists and with [agency] Futerra. We explained to them that we now understand that the frog can be a leader and we need you to reconceptualise our frog as an animal that has agency, that is aware and that is pointing us somewhere.’

The Alliance left no stone unturned. The team looked through hundreds, if not thousands, of drawings, according to Kim, and considered everything right down to the eyes, head position and the number of legs on show. But they were also aware that over-finessing the image could also be to their detriment.

‘When we finally settled on this leaner and more active frog, we realised we have to balance this out because now this frog looked slick,’ says Kim. ‘That’s why we decided on the Krone font and to vary the width of the letters to regain some of that organic feeling of nature that we may have lost with making the frog much more dynamic. What we’re trying to do is capture the rhythm of the natural world with the font and the dynamism and leadership of our new organisation with the newly awakened frog as leader. That became the foundation for the rebrand.’

The colour scheme was deepened too, taking on darker teal tones, to look more contemporary than the muted greens the organisation previously sported. Futerra also came up with a palette around that foundation colour, with all the colours taken from nature.

‘It’s making sure we are faithfully translating and expressing the essence of who we are and how we want to connect with people,’ Kim notes. Indeed, the rebrand was essential to express the organisation’s new internal identity, inclusive of employees from each company, but Kim acknowledges it was also part of a bigger effort to reach a broader audience, beyond those advocates she calls ‘deep green.’

She points to four psychographic profiles – advocates, aspirationals, practicals and indifferents – coined in a report by brand consultancy BBMG and market research firm Globescan. Whilst people who fall into the indifferent category are unlikely to change their habits if a business or brand acts badly, and practicals go for what is the best value, aspirationals, and advocates, in particular, are more engaged when it comes to sustainability and values.

If we can ignite a culture shift, so that choosing responsibly sourced products becomes second nature, it sends a really loud message to companies

Whilst the Rainforest Alliance has many committed advocates, it recognises that its core growth market is aspirationals, who trust companies to act responsibly and sees business as a force for change. More than two in five millennials now fall into this category.

‘[Aspirationals] are people who are really style and status conscious, who are also looking for the brands they support to provide meaning to their lives,’ says Kim. ‘They very much want companies to be socially responsible and they will spend more to support companies that are environmentally and socially responsible.

‘They are often trendsetters, so if we can convince aspirationals to choose sustainably produced products then we can really influence businesses that have a really huge impact across entire landscapes,’ she adds.

‘The idea is that if we can help ignite a culture shift, so that choosing responsibly sourced products becomes second nature, it sends a really loud message to companies that this is what their consumers want. We’re seeing that companies are beginning to respond to that and to change their sourcing practices.’

She refers to companies like Dunkin’ Donuts, which offers 100 per cent Rainforest Alliance certified espresso, and McDonald’s, around half of whose coffee is sourced sustainably through the Rainforest Alliance. McDonald’s plans for 100 per cent of its coffee to be sourced as such by 2020.

‘Our philosophy is based on that grassroots model where, if you get enough activity among the people showing companies what they want, then the companies have to respond,’ explains Kim. ‘That was one of the driving motivations behind the rebranding, we kept that very much in the forefront of our minds as we worked through colour, tone of voice, messages, and images. How can we speak to aspirational millennials and people who aren’t hardcore environmentalists? How can we show them that sustainability is beautiful, cool and something they want to be a part of?’

The rebrand certainly helped share that message. When asked about the feedback the organisation has received, Kim says that is has been ‘wonderful’ and ‘positive’, both within the merger and outside of it. As soon as the rebrand was launched on Instagram, people commented asking where they could buy a t-shirt bearing the new logo. For both the organisation and its people, whether members of the public or employees, it is about expressing who they are.

‘It’s an interesting exercise,’ considers Kim. ‘I almost think of it as personal style as an individual. How you express who you are in a way that makes you feel good, true to yourself and authentic. Also, there’s an external validation factor too, you want other people to recognise you for who you are. It’s not superficial because it helps people find us and it helps us express the deeper truths of who we are and what our values are.

‘The Rainforest Alliance is full of really active, dynamic and extremely pragmatic optimists – a lot of them are millennial, some are more seasoned,’ she concludes.

‘Why do we get up and come to work every day? Why do we work so hard? It’s about expressing who we are and making sure that the expression of who we are externally matches up to our internal values that we hold.’