Agitating the industry

Last week I had the opportunity to pop over to Vienna for 24 hours.  It was the Allegra European Coffee Symposium, and I got to dress up in black tie and go to the Hofburg Imperial Palace for the awards dinner the night before.  I even got an award 1 which was amazing and I am very grateful!

I wish I could have wandered around Vienna for longer, in the end I only had a chance to pop into one coffee house – Hawelka – and those places are just no fun unless you have an afternoon to kill with a newspaper and an unusual desire for large quantities of whipped cream with your coffee.  They are possibly less fun if you are looking for an excellent shot of straight espresso, but I didn’t sample enough to know where local expectation lay, and how my own preferenes would fit into that.

The day after the awards was the symposium.  I don’t mind confessing that I felt a bit like the odd one out again – the speakers and fellow attendees came from Europe’s larger coffee companies and manufacturers.  However I am always interested in how that section of the industry views things, what is important, what their challenges are and what I can learn from them.

First up in the day was Jim Slater – the marketing director for Costa Coffee.  For those of you reading in the UK you’ll no doubt have noticed that Costa have pushed their marketing very hard this year.  Whether it is the “7 out of 10 Coffee Lovers prefer Costa” campaign, through to news stories about insuring their head cupper’s tongue for £1m, to more recent ads talking about their coffee being “Handmade by Baristas and Not Button Pushers”.

One thing that Jim said that really stuck was talking about the need to agitate the market.  I think that really is a perfect word for what is necessary.  Agitation is as much about movement, preventing stagnation, as it is about irritation.  You can’t really argue that those adverts agitate the industry.

Compared to the rest of the industry the Speciality Coffee sector has comparatively little budget/muscle when it comes to advertising and marketing.  However we should ask if what we are doing is agitating the industry and the public sufficiently.  I am not saying that we need to turn around and start throwing muck, start name calling and trying to pick on the rest of the industry.  Are we being too nice, too hopeful that people want to listen to our very specific message, rather than talking up traceability in a way that makes people question why the exact origin of the coffee they drink has been obscured.  2.

To and from Vienna I consumed Made to Stick, which is a fun read on why some ideas stick and some don’t.  Simplicity of message is a key part of it, and it has made me think more about trying to condense down to a minimum number of words, with a maximum impact, what my business/speciality coffee does to distinguish itself.  This, combined with a goal of agitating the industry, is great for giving me direction and a goal.

That aside – I only managed to stay until just after lunch before having to hop on a flight back.  It was interesting to hear Paul Ettinger from Caffe Nero talk about their challenges and goals, and also to see their figures (they are a private company so rarely give much detail).  He, quite worryingly, mentioned an interest in facial recognition software to help baristas remember customers and their drinks.  I couldn’t quite tell if he was being serious.

Darcy Willson-Rhymer talked about Starbucks’  areas of focus.  They believe the shift in customer’s value expectations will last long after we’ve recovered from the recession.  He mentioned some new UK concepts would be unveiled soon, though I don’t think they will be anywhere near as radical as the 15th Avenue experiment.

I wish I had stayed for the Fair Trade debate – apparently it got quite juicy, and rumour has it that Fair Trade didn’t come out of it as well as they would have liked.  Anyone with more info please let me know!

  1. Outstanding Contribution to the European Coffee Industry 2009  ↩︎
  2. On a side note I’ve been thinking about how traceability could really be the best indicator of quality available, simply because the extra cost and work of keeping a lot separate is only likely to be done if that coffee is going to be able to fetch the higher price it needs to based on its cup quality – a discussion for another day perhaps  ↩︎

30 thoughts on “Agitating the industry

  1. You sure deserve the award for thoughtful and provoking contributions through your coffee blogging space!

  2. With apologies, a stream of thought…

    Good title. Specialty coffee, at the indie level, always seems to be agitating with a swizzle stick…always seems to be “preaching to the choir”. To be sure, education is happening. However, a swizzle stick may work for stirring a coffee cup but it is useless for stirring a pot. Where is the influence? This is where I would see an organization like the SCAA take a role but I haven’t seen the effects as a consumer. Part of the problem is unity. How do you present a simple message with so many members surfing on different waves? Fair Trade, for better or worse, makes it simple for its participants and consumers. I like the idea of condensing words for maximum impact (kind of like a Bruce Lee punch). I’m always excited to see coffee events occurring outside the “coffee community”…evangelization. Interested to hear how your message/goals crystallize around your post.

  3. Congratulations on the (well-deserved) award, and thanks for your invitation to agitate, an essential part of any process of evolution: agitate, cogitate, innovate! I would also be very interested in hearing first-hand accounts of the discussion of Fair Trade, which I also understand was engaging if sadly ill-attended. I know Carolyn Fairman of Coffee Kids was scheduled to talk about that organization’s work at origin, which seems to take as its point of departure the fact that all the sustainability schemes in the world aren’t enough on their own to ensure truly sustainable livelihoods for coffee farmers. That’s not a slap at Fair Trade or any other certification, but it is an important contribution to our understanding!

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