We mainline a lot of coffee here in the U.S., and with good reason. We’re not like those Old World tea drinkers, hoisting a presumptuous pinky in the air while sipping a weak-spined brew of putting-on-airs leaf extract. No sirree!! We want some hearty joe, preferably to go, to jump-start some serious red blood pumping so that we can get stuff done. Java and calorie-encrusted donuts, Yes! A “spot of tea” and delicate crumpets – er, no.
So, how are the coffee companies doing on their branding exercises?
Ignoring the supermarket/mass market brands (Folgers, Maxwell House, and the like) which bear some resemblance to coffee but carry no interest from a branding perspective – or a drinking perspective, for that matter – I’ll give a few thoughts to coffee brands I actually like.
Starbucks - blah, blah, blah, everyone’s talked about Starbucks. I know, I know. But credit must be given where it is due – they turned coffee into an experience. They “branded” coffee into the realms of fine beers and wines, with various beans and roasts, highbrow terms, etc. Fact is, most of the coffee just tastes good, for those of us that prefer stronger flavors to amorphous swills. And their pioneering use of the Starbucks debit card was brilliant. These people have continuously found ways to build user experience around their brand, and the dollars keep ending up in their tills. I wish they’d open one up in my town.
Dunkin’ Donuts – growing up in the Northeast, I’ve always known about DD. Their coffee was always reasonably good, and they were the donut/coffee shop for the blue collar set. Get a big joe and a cruller and off to pound some nails!
Some years ago, they came out, in some markets, with a Dark Roast that was pretty darn good – then they killed it. Boy, was that stupid (personal peeve). Their new campaign, however, “America runs on Dunkin'”, is pretty good. With that phrase, they’re preserving their more “functional” identity, but they are slowly moving up the food chain into a higher quality niche, with cappuccino drinks, etc. I still stop at DD’s, without shame, though typically feeling more at home when there in denims and a flannel shirt.
Then there’s Krispy Kreme. These people actually have pretty good coffee, though their core message and branding is around the donuts. Fact is, decades ago when I went to college in the South, KK’s were viewed as budget gut-fillers. Then, someone turned their shops into an experience, where you could get a free one “Hot Now” as they rolled off the line. We now drive 1 mile (each way) out of our way on trips to Connecticut just to go to KK, since the kids love the experience as much as the adults like the coffee. And, yes, I have a KK shirt and thermal mug, despite the fact the logo is pretty dated.
And now, two surprise entries. Not big, well-known chains. What is our workaday, regular morning coffee? Kirkland (from Costco). Incredibly affordable in those 3-lb. cans, and consistently good. Not great, but quite good enough for the daily fix. From a price/benefit ratio, can’t beat it. No cool logo, no great tagline, no catchy campaign – just solid performance. Sometimes I’ll mix in some Eight O’Clock dark roast just to make it a bit heartier.
Then, my all-time favorite coffee – Mill Mountain. From a little group of coffee shops in central Virginia. Mill Mountain Blend is roasted and ground on site, and it is strong. Walk around downtown Roanoke at the right time, and the olfactory branding experience is almost irresistible. I’m sure there are hundreds of places like this – the bags may be plain, and the branding identity undistinguished, but the joe sells itself after one sip. I’ve been known to go to extraordinary lengths to get a few pounds of Mill Mountain smuggled into New Jersey so that I can have a few fleeting weeks of peak Java experience before, sadly, having to return to more pedestrian sipping…