As a whole, I think we in specialty coffee have hit a wall when it comes to communicating with our customers about our product.
There is an assumption in popular culture that baristas are snobby. There is a growing push-back against features of specialty coffee service, including supposedly complex menus, baristas, and “expensive” coffee.
In the specialty facet of the coffee industry, we serve a product that is, at least in its raw form, high quality. Due to the fact that a specialty-grade and, frequently, socially responsible product, bought in relatively small quantities inherently costs more than mass-produced, low-grade, exploitative commodity, in order to continue serving this product, we must convince customers that it is worth paying more for.
To convince customers to pay more we must actually explain to customers why it costs more in the first place and what they get out of it.
As far as I can tell, the answer for the past ten years or so in specialty coffee has been quality. It’s simple — you pay more for our product and you get higher quality. This is true, and it is important to communicate this to our customers.
However, there is also an unintended side-effect. By talking so much about the quality of our product, we have created a reputation for pretense — and not entirely without merit.
James Hoffmann has pointed out that it has become cool in some scenes to like bad coffee because it’s anti-snob. He states:
“By defining itself by what it wasn’t it became, inevitably, exclusive. People didn’t like that. Consumers were angry that we defined ourselves by what was wrong with what they liked.”
In another post he discusses the need to grow the market of specialty consumers and how marketing the quality hasn’t worked:
“We told them, loudly and proudly, that we served better coffee than the chains. The results of our marketing claims weren’t what we hoped. People liked the coffee they were buying from the chains, and considered us pompous and pretentious… what we perceive as our biggest asset to win and retain customers doesn’t work the way we want it to.”
Thus, we have a dilemma, because our quality-focused marketing approach has simultaneously created a small specialty-drinking market and created a large anti-specialty mindset.
However, I am convinced that for quality to continue increasing sustainably, we must communicate to our customers the merits of buying specialty coffee. In an atmosphere of push-back against “high” prices, the growing threat of climate change to sustainability, and a specialty market that often doesn’t grow when new coffee businesses open, I think it is more important than ever to continue growing the specialty consuming market.
If communicating the merits of specialty to our customers is important, and talking primarily about quality has isolated potential customers, then we must find a different way to talk about specialty coffee.
Hoffmann is certainly correct that specialty coffee has established a general reputation of pretense, and that quality is not the selling point we once thought it was. He goes on to suggest collaborative marketing between different specialty shops, or “creat[ing] opportunities for discovery”. I think he’s right. Collaboration among coffee companies can be an effective way to promote specialty coffee.
But collaboration and marketing will not change the language that has isolated potential customers. I think that we should make it a priority to shift the way we talk with customers about coffee quality. And I think we should shift the focus from quality to discovery.
Quality isn’t our only selling point. We are, after all, not just selling quality coffee. We are selling specialty coffee.
Now, the term “specialty” tends to mean different things to different people, but I think it is fair to say that most (hopefully all?) of us in specialty are searching to find the unique flavour characteristics present in a given lot of coffee and present them to our customers. In short, we are trying to show people what makes each coffee special.
This absolutely depends on quality. But if we only talk about quality, we lose out on the whole point of quality in specialty coffee — the discovery of what makes every coffee unique.
Don’t get me wrong — quality is vital. I don’t think we can have specialty coffee without quality. Quality throughout the supply chain is how we retain the characteristics that make each coffee unique. You won’t taste terroir clearly through picking under-ripes, over-fermenting, drying unevenly, allowing mould to grow, shipping in only jute, and then burning your coffee in the roaster.
But if quality is our selling point, the message can quickly go — and has gone — from “we serve great coffee” to “our coffee is better than the coffee you like”. This is a problem. Especially since (let’s be honest) many places roasting and/or serving specialty-grade coffee aren’t doing a particularly great job.
On top of this, telling people that our coffee is “better” and then giving them a bright, sweet, fruit/nut/caramel-bomb, far different from the “mellow” (flat/woody) or “bold” and “strong” (ashy/bitter) drink they know and love, will almost always create a bad customer experience, simply because we did not create accurate customer expectations.
Customers know what coffee they like, and they know how they like it. They come into our specialty cafes with these expectations. Then we tell them — explicitly or implicitly — that their coffee is bad, that we do coffee better, and often follow that up with a disappointing customer experience.
No wonder so many people view specialty coffee as snobbery.
Of course deep down most of us are not snobby. We’re mostly excited nerds who want to share what we love with the world. But I think we’ve generally done a pretty bad job expressing this.
Trying to market our coffee solely on its quality is an exclusive approach. Nobody wants to be told that their favourite thing is bad. It feels bad. It puts people on the defence. Especially when people are so emotionally and ritually attached to the coffee they like and how they consume it.
Luckily, there is more to our coffee than quality. By selling specialty, we are doing something totally different. Specialty coffee is a completely different approach from classical coffee consumption. It is not just a shift in quality, but a different philosophy.
In specialty, we look to appreciate the flavours that make each coffee unique, whereas traditional coffee consumption is simply about taking in caffeine. In specialty we seek to find and display the best that every lot of coffee has to offer — through quality practices all along the supply chain. In traditional coffee consumption, the goal is to make cheap, low-quality coffee palatable for the sake of caffeine. Where specialty is about discovery and transparency, non-specialty becomes about personal preference.
For many people, specialty is still a novel idea. It is exciting. It is fascinating. It is different. And if we do it well, it is delicious.
If we present specialty coffee as a novel, different, exciting, inclusive thing, then maybe more people will be inclined to try it. If we do a good job, customers will understand quality when they find it in the cup. It will still be important to communicate the role of quality, but we may have an easier time creating a captive audience by inviting people to discover with us.
If we sell customers on the concept of specialty — of appreciating the things that make each coffee unique — it will explain what we are trying to do, why we are different from traditional coffee consumption, and invite them to check things out from our perspective.
If we present specialty as simply a different approach to coffee, then maybe we will stop coming off as condescending.
Maybe it’s not a complete solution. But maybe a shift in language can stop us from turning people away by implicitly or explicitly criticizing their preferences. And maybe along the way people will stop viewing coffee as a caffeine delivery product and start appreciating how fascinating, complex, and delicious it is.
When approached in an inviting and engaging way, many customers will respond with excitement. Sure, maybe not everyone will care about the fact that the washed SL28 in their cup was grown at 1789MASL. But maybe they’ll start appreciating the flavours in their cup.
If we can sell our customers on specialty as an approach and back it up with quality, then maybe the rest will follow. People will value the product we sell because it is inherently special. Quality and sustainability can continue increasing. People will enjoy what we’re doing for what it is, and there will even be a place for both classical coffee consumption and contemporary. Eventually quality may even win out in popularity.
And maybe people will stop thinking we’re jerks.