A coffee brand – whether roaster or coffee shop – can source the highest-quality specialty coffee. It can go direct t undefined
o the source and only use Fair Trade, organic coffee. It can brew that coffee using the latest innovation and serve it with a heart-warming story in a café that’s hip and Instagram-worthy.
But today, these efforts are no longer enough to set a brand apart in the increasingly saturated market. In an effort to appeal to today’s savvy Third Wave coffee consumers, who are increasingly distracted and overwhelmed, brands are being forced to think outside the box to get their attention. Some of them are doing that through big, wild, and risqué marketing.
“There are so many billions of dollars out there to be captured in the coffee business that you’re seeing new and existing brands do incredibly creative things to stand out,” says Peter Breslow, a food branding and PR expert. “We’re all so inundated with choices every day and so over engaged, so the companies that can get us to stop and pay attention to their strategies are the ones that seem to be winning.”
In the United States alone, the number of new companies in the coffee production industry has increased at a rapid pace of 10.5 per cent per year on average since 2013, according to industry research firm IBISWorld. Through 2023, that number is forecast to stay at a strong 9.9 per cent per year on average.
“If you look at some of the main leaders in the category, their shelf space has gotten thinner and thinner,” adds Ken Collis, CEO and Founder of lifestyle marketing agency TLK Fusion.
In addition to a saturated industry, Collis points to the evolving media landscape as a reason behind creative marketing in coffee. Consumers’ fast-paced lifestyles, short attention spans, and move to digital formats have forced companies to adjust their approaches and messaging.
“Consumers are bombarded with more than 5000 advertising messages per day,” he tells Global Coffee Report. “We need to be able to cycle through that and we don’t want to get caught up in the minutia.”
Collis says today’s engaged coffee consumers “need messaging that is going to be aggressive but [also] detailed in a very quick manner”. He cites video and social media campaigns as popular ways to achieve this, particularly through campaigns that “go viral.”
This is how Toronto coffee shop owner Joelle Murray’s latest social media campaign turned out. In an attempt to get actor Ryan Gosling into Grinder Coffee during the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, which she then hoped would drive traffic to her café, she flooded social media with messages to the actor. This included photos of a life-size cutout of Gosling drinking Grinder Coffee, followed by the hashtag #ryanneedsgrinder. The campaign finally reached Gosling and, with his mother’s strong encouragement, the A-list actor made an appearance at the coffee shop.
From there, the campaign continued to gain momentum as global media outlets picked up the story. “I never expected in a million years [that it would] go viral,” says Murray, admitting she only expected it to make local news. “It turned out that a lot of people were following the campaign and once I posted the now infamous photo [of Ryan and me], it just spread like wildfire. News outlets started calling within 15 minutes.”
Space, celebrities, and a tiny house
When Mike Brown launched Death Wish Coffee – the “world’s strongest coffee” – he wasn’t trying to be wild or loud or risqué. He was simply giving his café customers what they wanted: “a cup of the strongest.” Through a specific blend of coffee beans and a strategic roasting plan, Death Wish makes coffee with double the amount of caffeine in an average cup.
While Brown says the business was growing at a quick rate organically, a small business contest with business and financial software maker Intuit expedited that growth massively when he won the grand prize: a commercial in the 2015 Super Bowl. That game just so happened to be the most-watched Super Bowl in history, with 114.4 million viewers, according to The Nielson Company.
“I believe the contest pushed us ahead about three to five years,” estimates Brown. “It also pushed us hard to get out of our comfort zone and do things we typically wouldn’t do to push the brand out.”
Something that has helped keep up the momentum of the Super Bowl commercial was 2018’s launch into space. Inspired by an astronaut guest on an episode of Death Wish’s weekly podcast, Fueled by Death, host Jeff Ayers came up with the idea to send Death Wish Coffee into space. After nine months of follow up and lab work with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the team developed a version of Death Wish Coffee that could be used on the International Space Station.
On 29 June 2018, the specially made freeze-dried instant coffee headed into space from Cape Canaveral, Florida, aboard the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket – effectively becoming the “galaxy’s strongest coffee”.
Although Brown thinks big marketing initiatives “can be fun sometimes when they’re original and can get some momentum behind them”, he recognises that feats like a Super Bowl ad or space launch are not necessary to get customers’ attention.
Another flashy tactic among brands has been celebrity partnerships. Nespresso has long had actor George Clooney as a brand ambassador, small roaster J Gursey Coffee Roasters is collaborating with the band Korn to make Korn Koffee, and Keurig recently tapped comedian and TV show host James Corden.
Other brands opt for interactive marketing initiatives that range from social experiments to pop-up exhibitions.
Amsterdam-based Moyee Coffee created a short film based on a “heightened taste test” where the subjects drank and evaluated a cup of Moyee Coffee while under the influence of cannabis. Such a public experiment is less risqué in Amsterdam where cannabis and coffee go hand-in-hand – it has been available for recreational use in coffee shops since the 1970s – but in other parts of the world, the clever video likely raised some eyebrows.
More recently, Dunkin’ unveiled a 275-square-foot custom home that is powered by biofuel created from used coffee grounds. It was first introduced for viewing in New York City in October 2018, but then it moved to a town outside Boston where it was temporarily available for rent on AirBnB for $10 per night, which included unlimited coffee. It ended up booking out every night.
Promotion + core values + delivery
“In every industry that is highly competitive, there is an art to being promotional and an art to breaking through,” explains Bill Gullan, President of boutique brand consultancy Finch Brands. “So we encourage clients to square the way they promote with who they are and how they want to be perceived. That doesn’t mean they can’t be risqué or aggressive or funny. They can be all of those things if that’s in keeping with their brand personality.”
That latter part is what experts say is a key component to success with flashy marketing initiatives, and is what Murray strove for in her #ryanneedsgrinder social media campaign. “I can only work on how my brand is perceived,” she tells GCR. “My posts aren’t overly staged, but they are about being genuine.”
“The promotional stuff is a way to express your personality in a way that people can rally around and access,” Gullan says. “While [it] can earn some eyeballs and foot traffic, you activate the full potential of a brand over the long term not simply by being a shiny penny promotionally, but by being consistent, sincere, authentic, transparent, and high quality. Those brands will win even if their promotional approach is less quirky than the one next door.”
The experts agree that the third component to a successful campaign is delivering on the brand’s promise, consistent with advice Brown says he received from one of his mentors.
“You can do things that are going to be very disruptive,” Collis says, “but make sure your messaging is [short], speaks the truth, and delivers exactly what you say you’re going to deliver.”
Gullan echoes this sentiment. “The most successful organisations know how to attract consumers and then deliver. A company that is great at promotions and just average at everything else will find that the promotional side of this is basically an arms race. It’s a perpetual need to gimmick and shock.”
And that’s where brands can get themselves into trouble.
“You want your promotional face to be authentic or else you won’t get credit for it,” Gullan tells GCR. “Even if you attract some interest, it just doesn’t connect. It’s a one-off.”
Breslow recommends a risk-reward evaluation prior to launching an aggressive campaign.
“You have to take chances,” he says. “But in this time of incredibly heightened competition in the coffee world, there’s good aggressiveness and then there’s too risky, which could end up damaging the brand.”
From there, today’s digital advancements allow companies to quickly evaluate the reception and impact of their campaigns and adjust on the fly, Collis explains. “If it’s not working, we need to look at the reasoning, shut it down, and move on to the next campaign. There are plenty of campaigns that fail, but that’s why you have a backup plan. You simply pick up and keep going.”