Growing Your Business and the Specialty Coffee Industry

James Hoffman recently published a blog post titled A Customer Conundrum where he mostly discusses how to convert second wave coffee drinkers to the third wave without coming off as a snobby. Here’s the problem statement in Jim’s words:

We’ve tried in the past to appeal to the wider audience. 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. Some just thought that we were trying to ride some new trend, that we lacked authenticity and called us hipsters. Very few threw down their cups in newly-discovered disgust, and headed to the nearest independent for a better tasting replacement.

I probably would have missed this article entirely if it wasn’t then shared on Reddit, where u/anomander added a lengthy response (def worth the read). Here’s his conclusion:

The industry itself may not be the best promoters of what’s seen as ‘its own’ vision. Our consumers themselves are far more effective leaders and persuaders than we are, and if the industry wants to focus energy on any one direction, better empowering the consumers already sold on the craft coffee vision to promote what we make to others is a far more winning strategy. Often, they’re promoting to people they know, so an audience they’re familiar with, and with a relationship they’ve a vested interested in approaching respectfully and convincingly. We don’t want to ignore the unreached market, but if our best efforts have been largely to naught and occasionally counterproductive – we need to make a point of not doing the same thing, louder.

Being the founder of Angels’ Cup puts me in a somewhat unique position to comment on this topic because we ship blind coffee tastings to our subscribers who then record tasting notes via an app. We get to see what they say about a broad range of coffees, in tremendous detail. Here’s an example of an advanced user’s tasting notes. And of course, our goal like any business, is to attract and retain customers. Customers range from industry professionals (Q-graders, roasters, shop owners), to people who are just dipping their toes into specialty coffee because they want to see what’s out there. We solicit a ton of feedback from subscribers and in many cases we develop relationships with them and know who they are.

Anomander’s response above is entirely correct. 95% of new subscribers to Angels’ Cup come from referrals or reviews people find online. Our monthly advertising budget is less than $100 because it really doesn’t work (or at least we haven’t figured it out). We’ve also optimization tested the copy on our website. Saying things like “our coffee is good/better/best”, doesn’t work. Saying “our coffee is 100% arabica and single origin, here are the roasters we’ve featured”, works much better. In general, the philosophy should be show, not tell.

On a more granular level, there are things we can do to promote specialty coffee in productive ways. Here are a few:

  1. Natural process Ethiopians – Instead of saying “our coffee is better than what you currently drink”, try saying “our coffee has an unmistakable blueberry flavor, a product of where it’s grown, come see if you can taste the blueberry too”. The customer says “wow, I get it”, and now you’ve opened them up to all the interested flavor profiles of single origin coffee. Blueberry bombs are a gateway drug.
  2. Public coffee tastings – We’ve set up Coffee Hunter meetup groups in NYC, San Fran, Atlanta, Philly (needs a new manager), and we’re loosely affiliated with one in Des Moines. Offering free coffee cuppings to the public (preferably on Sunday) is a great way to show, not tell.
  3. Barista for a day –  When I ask people how they got into coffee, the #1 answer is they worked for a coffee shop. Bars have guest bartender nights. I have no experience with this so can’t say if it works, but if I owned a coffee shop I would experiment with guest baristas.
  4. Quality is subjective – It’s easy for us to think that people who like dark roasted coffee have that preference because they haven’t been exposed to specialty coffee yet, or they’re unfortunate victims of marketing campaigns that have brainwashed them into thinking dark roasted coffees are high quality. This isn’t true. “Dark roast” is a flavor profile, not a quality score, and some people legitimately like it. Either appeal with a dark roast option, or accept that they’re not part of your demographic.

Just my two cents, maybe I’m off base. Welcome to feedback though.

And by the way, Jim concludes his blog post with:

I’m interested in collaborating, iterating and learning quicker than others who act alone. I would summarise it all this way: we need to create opportunities for discovery. The coffee served needs to be delicious, it needs to make the people who serve it proud and excited, and it needs to be done in an environmentally and financially sustainable way. I think we’re all getting better at that, and now we need to get much better at creating opportunities to showcase the best of what we do to new customers. I believe working together is a more effective way of creating such opportunities, and I’m open to support and collaborate with anyone and everyone on that.

That’s exactly what we’re doing at Angels’ Cup! The roasters we feature get access to all the data app users are recording on their coffees, and many roasters have been blown away by what they learn. And perhaps more importantly it’s a huge opportunity for roasters to showcase their coffees in a harsh environment where brand bias won’t save you. If you’re a roaster interested in sending us samples, contact abby @ angelscup.com

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