As I write this, I’m drinking my first cup of coffee of the day. I thought about my first sip almost the moment I woke up. The first cup of coffee is a small daily pleasure that many of us use as a fixed point in the day: the beverage means that we’re ready to go now; the day can commence.
There was a cartoon that appeared in the New Yorker a decade or so ago that offered a summary lesson to entrepreneurs thinking about the drinks industry. The idea and execution and summary were simple. There were line drawings of two cups of coffee that had been sketched on a napkin. The one on the left had ‘50c’ written underneath it, and a big ‘X’ through both cup of coffee and price. The one on the right had a drawing of what appeared to be exactly the same mug and coffee. Underneath it was a price: ‘$2’.
The caption beneath the two cups of coffee read: Starbucks’ business plan.
It was a timely observation: at that point, many people were still getting used to the idea of paying double or triple what they were used to paying for a cup of joe. Having spent some time in Seattle in the mid to late nineties I’d witnesses that the model was one that was successful on a local level, but would the Starbucks model work outside out of the relaxed, crunchy environs of the west coast?
You, of course, know the answer to that. But Starbucks’ success in educating people to pay a multiple of what they were used to paying, for a slightly better cup of coffee, wasn’t the first time that coffee manufacturers and retailers have innovated in order to keep their product in the forefront of consumer taste. The invention of freeze-drying the stuff meant that consumers were offered the same properties as the ground iteration, but with a great deal more convenience. Just as people in urban areas were looking for ways to make their lives easier to compensate for the grueling demands and time restriction of industrial labour, a product came onto the market that allowed them to get their kick much quicker and with significantly less effort.
Coffee’s popularity in the US remained undiminished until just after the Second World War. (Consumption peaked in 1946 when the average American drank 46.4 gallons per person per year.) However, the post war era saw the rise of a whole other category of beverages which seemed more modern, upbeat and youthful: the soda. Coffee companies got worried: their product, which had long been associated with leisure in western markets, now appeared to be an old dowager in the face of the youthful vigour of Coca-Cola and the other products which appeared to reflect America’s new confidence and modernity. Coffee was perceived as your parents’ and grandparents’ drink.
Big Coffee fought back.
The trade association for the industry, the Pan-American Coffee Bureau, decided to reposition the product: it created the term “coffee break”. Creating a national campaign that reached even churches, coffee became something people (particularly the growing amounts of time-pressed women joining the workforce) associated not with sipping, but with a kick that would get them through the day in an increasingly busy and complex working life. Having a cup of coffee was the equivalent of turning on after burners.
Coffee was no longer associated with leisure, but with wakefulness and potency.
Next time you head to Starbucks for your morning pick-me-up, remember that it’s not just your addiction that’s motivating you – it’s decades of cultural persuasion
My friend Martin Delamere reminded me that the Ploughman’s Lunch was also an agency creation. Any other examples?