I’ve been thinking about coffee a lot lately, and it’s partly due to things going on at the office. The Howard Schultz book “Onward” has been making the rounds at work because of the turnaround that happened at Starbucks, and some of us are seeing similarities to the current challenges facing Best Buy. (If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, go ahead and look up Best Buy on Google News to see some of the recent consumer and industry press clippings. Needless to say, it has been a wild ride at the Sandcrawlers of late, but that’s another post for another time.)
The main reason that I’ve been thinking about coffee is because I’ve reached the point where I don’t just consume it for the caffeine benefits, but because I really enjoy the flavor. Maybe this is a sign that I’ve finally entered adulthood. I find myself wanting to compare the taste of Starbucks coffee to Caribou coffee, or I’ve started to seek out different independent coffee shops that I haven’t frequented before. Plus, I’m no longer doctoring my coffee with tons of sugar. (Only one teaspoon at most — I swear.)
On some recent coffee shop visits, I’ve been trying to pay attention to the difference in the experiences and see how they affect my perception of the different brands. When you think about it, coffee on a certain level is a functional beverage. To be able elevate it to a place where someone is going to pay $2, $3 or even $4 for a cup, you better offer something beyond just a caffeine delivery mechanism.
There are three coffee brands in particular that have been at the top of my mind lately. First off is one that I mentioned earlier: Starbucks. Aside from their variety of coffee drinks, Starbucks’ approach is to be a mass brand that can still create a relationship with their customer base. They focus on creating a welcoming in-store environment that delivers on the concept of the third place, and they train their employees to get to know their customers on a one-on-one basis. The few times I’ve been to a Starbucks recently it has not been uncommon for the baristas to know the customers by name and to know what they’re ordering before they even reach the counter. Working for a large retail operation and considering the scale of Starbucks’ business, I find this pretty impressive.
In a different corner is a smaller brand, but one with a fan base that is as passionate as they get. Peet’s Coffee & Tea is a brand that began in Berkeley, California. Peet’s roasts deep, dark, strong coffee beans. It is the kind of coffee that puts hair on your chest, as my mother likes to say. When it comes to roasting coffee, Peet’s is a brand that is maniacal about the freshness of their beans. It took them years before they expanded operations beyond their West Coast locations because they were so concerned that the beans would not stay fresh if they distributed too far from home base. Peet’s employees act as guardians of their fresh roasted coffee, and this belief permeates through their customers.
My last example is Intelligentsia Coffee. As far as I know, they are a coffee brand that only has locations in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles; however, they also distribute their beans through independent coffee shops across the country. I recently tried some at the Angry Catfish in South Minneapolis. (Side bar: If you live here in the Twin Cities, you have to check this place out. It’s wicked cool: a high-end custom bicycle shop and coffee bar all-in-one.) The coffee itself was fantastic, but the ritual of how they made the coffee was what won me over. Every single drink that I saw prepared was done individually. There were no sitting carafes of drip coffee. Nor were there pre-ground coffee beans that were just sitting and waiting. Every single drink, whether it was just a regular pour or a more complicated espresso beverage, was made methodically and with precision. I later learned that this practice was a trait of not only this particular coffee shop, but it was also the standard of other shops where Intelligentsia sells their brand.
When I reflected back on these different brands and experiences, the one thing that stood out to me was the visceral reactions that they generate among their customers.
My manager at Best Buy is a devout Starbucks fan. Even though we have two Caribou Coffee locations in our office — yes two! — she hits up Starbucks everyday on her drive into work. Yes she prefers the taste of their coffee, but even beyond that she swears by the fact that once she walks in the door, they are already preparing her beverage because they know it by heart. (There’s that relationship building aspect that I mentioned.)
My brother who lives in Northern California is a huge fan of Peet’s Coffee. He has recounted for me numerous times Peet’s philosophy on roasting coffee and how fervent they are about the freshness of their coffee beans. (There’s the guardianship factor.) He has even taken this a step further; he’s such a big believer in the brand that he now owns stock in the company.
For me, it was my experience with getting that first cup of Intelligentsia coffee. I fell in love with the thought-out and orchestrated preparation methods. (There’s the ritual aspect I talked about.) The day of that first visit, my wife and I walked out of the coffee shop with a $15 bag of beans and didn’t think twice about it. Later that week, as I ground the beans myself and made my own fresh cup of Intelligentsia coffee, I immediately took to Twitter tout its greatness.
Creating memorable brand experiences is not an easy process — especially for older or larger companies. For the brands that I mentioned (or even for their competitors), of course the coffee beans have to be damn good. That’s just the cost of entry. But what else is there? What’s the one element of the experience or one story or ritual that consumers will not only identify with, but adopt and advocate? These aren’t easy for brands to figure out, but that’s why it’s a fun and rewarding challenge. Because who wouldn’t want their customers taking to the streets and telling everyone how kick ass their products are?
(Photos courtesy of Shuttersmack Photography + Design.)