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Birch Bark Coffee Company - Making a difference, one cup at a time

From: Canadian Intellectual Property Office

Many people need a cup of coffee to start their day. For Mark Marsolais-Nahwegahbow, with his love of coffee, he decided to enter the coffee industry with a vision in mind. As an Ojibwe Whitefish River First Nations entrepreneur and a visionary, Mark founded Birch Bark Coffee Company (BBCC). A cause-driven coffee company, his innovative and inclusive business model allows BBCC to pay it forward to Indigenous communities in Canada and across the world while leveraging intellectual property (IP).

Mark Marsolais-Nahwegahbow, Founder of Birch Bark Coffee Company

With Mark's deep sense of gratitude for Indigenous communities and the dream to protect Mother Earth, he created a First Nations coffee company in Canada that aspires to become an international household name. As Mark says,"when I saw the water issues [in Indigenous communities], I knew that as an entrepreneur, instead of focusing on the problem, I had to come up with solutions. I wondered, as one person, how am I going to tackle such a nation-wide concern and issue? It all came down to being a visionary."

BBCC pays tribute to Indigenous peoples around the world through its sourcing, and it supports clean water infrastructure in First Nations communities in Canada while educating and raising awareness for their communities.

Birch Bark Coffee Company product in retail packaging and a glass jar with roasted coffee beans.

BBCC has multiple layers to its enterprise, as Mark calls it "the Indigenous Inclusion continuum business model" where he is proudly able to offer organic, fair trade, and Small Producer Symbol (SPP) certified products. SPP is a cooperative made of organic farmers and is recognized by Fairtrade Canada. BBCC is currently 1 of only 3 Canadian companies with this highly regarded designation. BBCC's model exclusively supports cooperative farmers who are of Indigenous descent and every single coffee bean is handpicked. The labeling and packaging of the products is supported by Flowercart, a non-profit organization that supports employment for those who cannot readily enter the workforce in Canada due to accessibility matters. As Mark says, "I wanted to make it simple. In my journey, whether you buy a cup or bag of coffee, you can help somebody and that's the image I wanted to create. I wanted to create the "feel good" for people… and I didn't look back."

After establishing BBCC's business model, Mark started to work with IP lawyers to build his IP strategy. Mark's vision for BBCC currently is to enter international markets and be on the same playing field as large coffee retailers. He first developed a local and national IP strategy in Canada while keeping his international goals in mind. BBCC leveraged IP protection by filing for a trademark of its name and logo. 

Prior to filing for formal trademark rights, Mark and his IP lawyers scanned Canadian trademark databases and went through a few iterations of the company's name and logo to ensure they did not infringe on existing IP rights before landing on the name "Birch Bark Coffee Company".

Birch Bark Coffee Company logo and slogan in a simple and minimalistic design.

The name "Birch Bark Coffee Company" and the logo come from the birch bark tree, which holds medicinal, harvesting and building significance in First Nations communities. They are also attached to Mark's own First Nations community, Birch Island in Ontario, in the district of Manitoulin Island.

Armed with trademarks, Mark is able to protect the brand's reputation, his years of hard work, and preserve his First Nations roots, which allow both trademarks to act as education and awareness tools for consumers about First Nations communities across Canada.

His national IP strategy allowed him to build his brand across Canada with BBCC's name and logo and understand the IP process before entering international markets. He was able to maximize the value of IP, which will in turn support his international growth, his initial business objectives and will create social impact in Indigenous communities.

BBCC was recently selected as 1 out of 10 businesses to discuss export opportunities in Australia with the help of the Canadian Council of Aboriginal Business. While leveraging the knowledge and expertise of IP lawyers, he is developing a detailed IP strategy for international expansion into Australia and other markets. To ensure he follows proper IP rules and regulations, he plans on expanding gradually by entering one region at a time. Mark is confident that he can maximize the benefits afforded by IP rights and keep his brand and company protected under this framework.

Thus Mark's advice to entrepreneurs is to take their time when understanding the international landscape IP rules and regulations. "I didn't want to move too fast… I want people to know that it can be done, to take your time, there's no rush," he says.There are a lot of moving pieces in an IP strategy and it is important to not hurry through each step of the trademark process.

Mark also recommends that businesses first understand their brand and create their IP strategy accordingly. He encourages consulting with the right team of lawyers and advisors in a safe environment as there are intricate details to be aware of, especially if a company wants to position itself and compete with bigger companies. "I never focused on the business as today... I focused on where BBCC is going to be, I focused on our vision," and he met with lawyers accordingly to get their strategic support and advice.

With his wisdom and vision, it's no wonder that Mark has succeeded in creating such a unique and successful Canadian brand.

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