Getting the Story Straight

Communicating what is Special about Specialty Coffee

By Tracy Ging

You know that famous quote, the one that says imitation is the sincerest of flattery? Well, if that’s the case, specialty coffee should be flattered because we have certainly been imitated.

Most coffee—whether it’s specialty or not—now carries descriptors like gourmet, premium, coffeehouse-style, and others. The words sound good—and in many cases, the coffee is pretty good too. As okay becomes better, it’s forcing better to rise to best.

That creates a new set of challenges for the specialty coffee industry, mainly in convincing people that there really is something special about specialty coffee, something so special that when presented with a myriad of choices, consumers will understand that specialty coffee is the better option, the one worth seeking out, waiting a little longer for, and paying a little extra for.

Although the industry has developed in knowledge and sophistication, it’s important to remember that for the average coffee drinker, coffee means big business. Most people believe it is ubiquitous and therefore cheap. Some think it’s a healthy drink, others worry it’s an unhealthy addiction. Pockets of individuals are concerned about coffee’s environmental and social impact. Many people know it comes from Colombia or Brazil, a few would include Costa Rica, and fewer still might list Kenya and Rwanda. For a whole new set of coffee drinkers, coffee may not mean coffee at all but a specialty beverage with any number of ingredients where the most special part is whipped cream on top.

Of course there is a continually growing segment of the population that knows more, which just makes the balance even more precarious. Where do we start the education process, how do we educate consumers about specialty coffee?

To answer this question, there is already something of a structure in place—concepts around cultivation, preservation, and revelation allow the story of specialty to be told with a basic framework around:

1. How the beans taste
2. How they’re roasted
3. How the coffee is cared for and prepared
4. How to get a similar experience at home
5. Where the coffee originates
6. How it is sourced
7. The story and values of the people behind the product

Sure, there may be some other elements or different approaches in play, but that’s generally how it goes and, for the most part, it is a formula that works. The problem is that as more and bigger companies have entered the fold, they’ve modeled the story in many ways, making certain words and ways of expressing it pervasive and thus meaningless. Even within our own industry, we can see flattery happening all over the place. It doesn’t take long once a new concept is introduced, after one or two companies adopt it, to see it quickly incorporated across the country. While that kind of innovation and momentum can be a great thing—it drives interest in specialty coffee—there is good reason to be cautious, at least hyper-thoughtful, about the manner in which the story is told because there is also the potential of deflating the special-ness of this story. For instance, many companies use some variation of scouring the globe for only the highest quality beans to describe sourcing practices and the word passion shows up everywhere. At what point do these words, as Mike McKim of Cuvee Coffee Roasting Company put it, become white noise?

As the industry pushes forward with new strategies and ways to differentiate, that mindset of differentiation has go beyond coffee or how it’s prepared and carry through to the story as well, forcing us to rethink and re-craft our words. It isn’t necessarily about being the most gifted communicator either, although that helps, but rather about being a thoughtful one and really understanding not just what is being said, but how it’s being said. Communicating well within the existing framework also requires:

The Right Priorities The story and values of the people behind the product are extremely well developed in specialty coffee. Marked with staunch individualism, personality and pride, these are engaging anecdotes. However, by themselves, they are generally not enough to make the case that the coffee tastes good. In looking at various web sites, I read through some of the most creative and interesting about us sections I’ve ever seen only to be disappointed by non-existent or thin coffee descriptions. Personal story isn’t a brand story and won’t provide a lasting advantage. It’s not to say that a personality can’t be present in a brand; in fact it should, but it can rarely lead the charge and is more effective when infused into other communication elements, like the items in the list above. It isn’t absolute of course, but in general, the framework above is listed in priority order.

Differing the Script There is an established vocabulary for coffee that has done an excellent service of creating a common language but then you have just that, a common language. I’m not suggesting that notes of apricot or caramel need to vanish—these terms are rooted in science and bring validity to the process—but I am suggesting they be attached to a real voice. Descriptions that include reactions of professional coffee cuppers, about why a particular coffee is special, are likely to be more resonate and differentiating than the cupping notes alone.

Building Layers As the industry has progressed, its methods and science have become more sophisticated and its knowledge base deeper and more complex. It is extraordinarily challenging to impart detailed, technical, new, and/or evolving information in an interesting and understandable way, yet the right direction is to continually add pages and chapters to the story. Every blog post or 200-word description on a web page affords the opportunity to expand, link, or reference additional information.

Revisiting from Time to Time Nothing is static. A commitment to quality or sustainability may not change but certainly perspective will broaden and approaches will evolve. Speaking authentically to customers and not marketing to them, means letting them in on the process. Refreshing content, even changing a few words, has the added benefit of breaking up the landscape and providing something new of interest. Even things as basic and core as about us or who we are, will evolve—not fundamentally change, but adapt in its application.
More simply, as McKim advised, “Presenting your coffee in a way that captures all the thought, work, and care that has gone before it, requires that you choose your words carefully to ensure those words aren’t reduced to just marketing terms.” Granted, that can be a complex process and an investment of energy, but doesn’t a product and experience so well crafted and protected deserve to be communicated with an equal amount of reverence? Perhaps there is no story to get straight, but rather one in need of more curves and bends, winding naturally and uniquely toward its new end.

With more than 15 years of marketing experience, Tracy Ging has spent the bulk of her career in the coffee industry, where she has worked on both sides of the supply-chain, developing a deep understanding of the market and the trends driving it. Tracy currently serves as Deputy Executive Director of SCAA.

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