Speciality Coffee and the media

For quite some time I’ve been thinking about why great coffee has struggled to really generate useful and sustained media interest. I have a few drafts of posts full of theories about why.

Originally I thought it was because, in our desperation for attention, we’ve compromised. I’ve compromised. In our excitement at the opportunity of a 30 second tv spot, we’ve agreed to dumb down and compromise our message to point of meaninglessness. I’m not picking on anyone but myself here, and perhaps this is more my own failings than commentary. 1

More recently, perhaps due to Malcolm Gladwell’s last article in the New Yorker, I’ve come to a different conclusion: we’re incoherent.

What I mean by this is that as an industry, as a community, we lack a coherent message.  We want to talk about so much – our roasting skills, or brewing chops, our exclusive coffees, our sourcing.  On top of this we want to out-talk our competition – “my trade’s directer than your trade…..”

Imagine that for a six months or even a year we picked a single topic and pushed it.  All of us.  Let’s take something simple that we can agree upon – like the importance of traceability in coffee. 2

Imagine that we all agreed to lead with this topic in every single interview with the press, be it TV or print or online journalism.

I’m not trying to dictate to an industry – just trying to spread and share a suggestion.  In truth this is the sort of thing that ought to be spearheaded by the SCAE or SCAA, uniting their membership under some useful and potentially successful common ideals.

Thoughts and comments are very welcome on this one – I just think that a rising tide can lift all boats…

Related Reading:

Small Change – Malcolm Gladwell

  1. If anyone has had a great experience with mainstream tv, and really felt they communicated the message they wanted to – I am jealous!  ↩︎
  2. I suggest this because I’ve yet to hear a compelling argument against it – while stuff like freshness, roasting style and seasonality are going to be harder to unite behind  ↩︎

23 Comments

  1. We lucked out and had a really nice piece on the local TV news morning show with Mike once.

    Mike got to explain V60 coffee, and then the station’s food guy actually PREPARED A V60 ON THE MORNING NEWS and tried to get the news staff to drink it.

    Of course, the newslady said “OH MY GOODNESS THAT’S TOO STRONG FOR ME! CREAM AND SUGAR PLEASE.”

    But overall, there was little misinformation spread.

  2. It’d be an interesting litmus test for sure. There’s a cadre of coffee professionals and such that a lot of the media who regularly cover coffee tend to go to. They always have a question / hot topic of the day that needs an answer.

    But what if this cadre also had it in mind to push an additional message – answer the media’s query, but also push that additional message, be it traceability of coffee, or the importance of the grinder, or the value of freshness or whatever was pre-agreed to. Decent reporters always multi-source their background material; if they get the same message from all their sources, we’re driving home a very important message that possibly will be heard.

    The downside is the not so efficient reporter who single-sources and tends to listen with blinders on.

    You’re also right about “talking too much”. I’m very much guilty of information overload on way too many media calls. Need to put that in check more often.

    With media, the KISS principle needs to be followed, but within that, we have to find a way to razor-focus on whats important without the information overload.

  3. Provenance would be a great start. The “slow food”, “100 mile diet”, “low food miles” topics have got a lot of airtime recently.
    Why not start with where the beans are from with the ultimate goal of making the supply chain transparent, empowering growers and consumers alike?
    Thanks again Jim, you are my leader.

  4. There is something about teaching the media people how to recognize specialty coffee. So often what we do is not compatible with their frame of reference so they ask us about double-tall extra whip whatever because that is what they have been taught to recognize as specialty coffee. Green grading defects are a nice visual and it is a great way to demonstrate in a non threatening way that they are about to learn something *new* as opposed to something they think they know about (everyone thinks they know coffee, don’t they?) Great post!

  5. Though I don’t find myself in the position to talk to media, this sounds like a great idea and if we talk to our customers about it as well it’ll create a market for the media to feed.

    I don’t think the problem can be lain entirely at the feet of the industry. Though I think a coherent message will help, there is a great laziness in the media to report on stuff that’s attention grabbing. I don’t think a week has gone by in the last 18 months where a customer hasn’t brought up Kopi Luwak.

    There’s a reason this has garnered so much attention and that is simply because it’s attention grabbing.

    It would be nice to see some focus even if it’s within a broader food-interest focus on coffee for more than the fact it’s passed through the digestive tract of a small cat.

    A feature on Food Network would speak to people who are likely to be interested in the best coffee available to them and could spread from there.

  6. I always like a point that both highlights our industry and without being too obvious shows up a bigger player e.g. coffee actually isn’t great the day after it’s been roasted, a lighter roast can leave in flavours that a darker roast would obliterate.

    It’s easier to use the media when you have a big single brand and message to promote i.e. the chains. But the speciality segment is extremely fragmented and with no clear public definition or brand is difficult to promote through the media. However, the beauty of the coffee industry is that all you need is one shop serving great coffee – that in itself is the message and in most locations is enough to win the day.

  7. Brainstorming out loud here …

    Maybe someone – weather it be an industry group, a person, etc. – needs to write up a list of suggested talking points for specialty coffee industry folks. Maybe it could be sent around monthly via email.

    This is where I’m coming from: the media outlet sets the agenda. Many times they come to you looking for a soundbite/quote or two. Many times they already have the story they want told all figured out. You are there to be part of it.

    A list of talking points that have been designed and are focused on getting across the maximum amount accurate information in a small amount of time and with an emphasis on responding to a number of given questions or story slants (and I can’t imagine guessing what those slants/questions might be would be considerably difficult … famous last words, though) might be helpful when an opportunity arises to spread the word about specialty coffee.

    Say, for instance, that a media outlet comes knocking at your door with the a story on the explosion of interest in the cappuccino. What are you going to say? How are you going to effectively further the interests of the specialty coffee industry with the infinitesimal amount of time you are going to get and the particular slant of a the story that is presented to you? Maybe you don’t like or agree with the very premise of the story but you don’t want to pass up this opportunity to get both get the word out about your café and the specialty coffee industry. What if, just a few weeks ago you received an email providing a few incisive talking points revolving around that exact question or, at the very least, something very similar? Suddenly you are well armed. You are not caught completely off guard and you are more likely not going to waste that opportunity.

    There’s a reason we are so enamored of good public speakers. It’s a skill. I think one of those skills is brevity. Brevity is accomplished through paring down what it is that you want to say into a finely honed point or set of points so that you are delivering the maximum amount of information in the little amount of time that you have to verbally get it across. In lieu of each individual doing the paring down, what if said person or organization were to do it for you?

    This method would not force anyone to talk about any one thing but would arm them with the ability to talk about any number of things, address any number of (possibly inane) media questions without much advance notice and to further the industry at the same time.

  8. great post, but I believe the specialty coffee market does get a lot of attention in the media….their message though is very different than what you and other leaders are trying to shape, and that is the struggle.
    There is a great book out there called Blue Ocean Stategy. I would highly recommend this business book. It provides an approach to making the competition irrelevant and creating an uncontested market space. We need to continue to work on making that space and defining what that space actually looks like.

  9. Couple of thoughts: First, if you think you’re better than the competition, make sure you’re actually serving a significantly better cup of coffee than they are. Maybe you source from a progressive, specialty roaster, or you source great beans and roast them optimally, but…your airpots are dirty, your letting coffee sit in airpots for 2 hours, you’re overdosing and underextracting, your portafilters are dirty, you’re spreading yourself thin offering multiple different origins on several brew methods, few if any brewed consistently. If you have to explain to people why your coffee is better, you’ve lost them; great coffee should be a visceral, not an intellectual, endeavor.
    Second, to most “local” food enthusiasts, coffee is an inherently non-local product, and they might as well just buy the big can of pre-ground fair trade at Trader Joe’s as opposed to a boutique shop. As a corollary to this point, those that do care about locally roasted coffee typically have many different options in a given market, all under the umbrella of specialty, yet not all sharing the same values. In our home market for instance, the roaster I work for would be the only one considered “3rd wave” or “progressive”, but there are probably 3-4 other local roasters who satisfy the demand for “local” coffee. Again, make sure you’re actually serving something significantly more delicious than they are – scale back to one coffee you can do well if necessary, perhaps emphasizing taste at the expense of telling a “story”.
    Personally, I would disagree a bit with the overall point that our sector of specialty is having trouble connecting with the public. There is now a regular blog in the NY Times Magazine reflecting our values, as well as several features on mainstream radio and TV in the recent past (even if they are still leaning towards the “look at these crazy coffee geeks” angle). All for a movement that started gathering steam, what, a mere 7 or 8 years ago? Part of this probably has to do with the fact that the home of this movement, at least in the U.S., was the Pacific NW – not exactly the media capital of the world. Now that it’s taken hold in media capitals like New York, LA and London, I think we’ll see the message getting out more consistently.

  10. Playing devil’s advocate here, I want to question the implied premise: do other artisan delicacies generate more useful and sustained media interest than great coffee? I bet you that boutique chocolatiers, Japanese sushi chefs and even oenologists will express the same feelings as us.

    Not to say that Jim rightly observes that the specialty coffee community can improve communictions a lot more to get our message across.

  11. We (coffee enthusiasts) love coffee. People who are not just think its their morning drink. They dont actually really care about all those things we find interesting. In time I think they will, but it will take time.

    How do we encourage people to care more?

    Maybe be more approachable as an industry. Not be so holistic. Be open minded and accepting of likes and dislikes in the general community?

  12. When asked about how he handled media questions, Henry Kissinger replied: “What questions do you have for my answers?” His answers were already prepared meaning that he had the ability to control the response rather than knee-jerk to whatever the reporter threw his way.

    In many respects, perhaps what foils us as a community the most is inexperience with the media. Most people have no idea what the media is looking for in an interview and they don’t know how to shape that interaction to their advantage. While the journalist has an intended goal, the person being interviewed should have a goal as well, and the more specific the better.

    When speaking with the media, I’ve got a particular message or goal in mind. It is my intention to shape our conversation to my vision. As always, one needs to be careful in their choice of words because there will be the time when ill-chosen words will be used out of context. Even carefully chosen words can be used out of context so beware.

    With things that we perceive to be so complex (mainly because of our involvement) it’s very easy to “dumb things down” to the point that you’ve lost your focus. Best thing is to keep it simple.

    I’m not in favor of trying to develop some sort of “cohesive” message that everyone is supposed to tout. Truth is that each barista and each company is different. This difference means that different things are important to each and possibly the only universal is that we’re pursuing great quality coffee (though that is questionable at times). What may be important to you and your company could be completely off my radar and inconsequential.

    A couple of weeks ago, I attended a session where Dan Barber, David Kinch, Michael Ruhlman and Thomas Keller were having a panel discussion. They pretty much were in agreement about everything – and there’s nothing more droll than a group of people sitting there in complete agreement with each other.

    If we’re out there in complete agreement, then there’s nothing to write about. There’s no story. Everyone said “yes” – end of story.

    What we might think of when it comes time to step in front of a camera, behind a microphone, on the telephone or face a journalist is: what is important to this person? What is important to the readership/viewer/listener?

    Sorry to say, but who really gives a hoot about defects in green coffee? Or the traceability of the La Tinta? If anyone, it’s a very small minority of customers. Most of them want something convenient, something delicious and a great experience. Yes, it’s good to offer that knowledge to them because it helps them to feel good about their purchase and increases their experience, but is it truly important to them? I doubt it.

    In our Twitter-fied world, people are getting more accustomed to sound bites and quick headlines. Offer them something compelling or at least grabbing. When the Baltimore Sun ran a small article about the $13 Cup of Coffee, CNN.com picked it up and took it national. The original article was just a paragraph or two but that was enough. Thirteen dollars – it grabbed attention and became compelling.

    Of course, some coffee shop owner in New York was quoted in the article stating that milk and cream are a no-no and only for the instant stuff – which only reinforced the attitude and snobbery of the Third Wave. So much for advancing.

    Then again, sometimes it’s good to have the opposing position. I was approached by Gizmodo.com because I wasn’t an Extract Mojo stalwart.

    Up and down. That’s how the media rolls. The only thing you can do is prepare yourself before the interview.

  13. I think perhaps you also need to consider how much appeal these stories really have. At the end of the day, media want to publish stories that interest joe public. I’m not so sure that a bunch of coffee geeks pushing the envelope really excites the average person that much.

    Think about fine wine, much older than specialty coffee, and arguably a very successful industry. But there’s not a lot of press stories about the lengths that those winemakers, viticulturists, etc go to, to make their wine better than cheap plonk.
    Lots of reviews sure, and the producers probably talk about hand-picking, etc etc in their own promotional material, but not exciting news stories. And wine is probably considered a more romantic product than coffee.

    At the end of the day what makes fine wine sell, is the quality of the product, and that’s what we really need to focus on (i’m sure anyone reading this blog already is).
    Media attention is great of course, but maybe we should ask ourselves what we really want to achieve through the media

  14. Specialty coffee is a quite young practice, and it has a lot to gain by touching other group of people who might really be interested and feel the good taste of it but are simply not aware of it ! I am thinking if most of the food and wine enthusiasts, which is hug, slowfood interested, organic food buyers … in that respect, smart use of the Media could really help.

    I am thinking for instance of this movie Mondovino, talking about the wine industry globalization and opposing somehow two different cultures of wine. All the folks who liked that movie would like similar stories about coffee, and a good part of those would become real coffee enthusiasts.

    I would like to see this kind of things happening, opposing specialty coffee to other options like Nespresso, because today, still, 8 of 10 gourmet people would tell you Nespresso is good coffee ! Which is not ! They just need a bit of awareness.

    So, while I don’t really like the idea of specialty coffee industry people (which I am not) agreeing on a schedule and on topics to be pushed, I think it would be really good that some really simple message are systematically pushed. Like, no, Nespresso is not good coffee (and also not good for the planet) ! Come visit us and discover what is good coffee. The people who don’t know specialy coffee are not at all interested in technics and the worst would be to be geeky to the outside world, talking too much of extraction time, roasting techniques or any things that are definitelly not speaking to am audience that still doesnt know about those things. Have them just come to specialty coffee explaining it is simply good, better and different than what they are used to, and they will love it !

  15. One thing I have noticed is that there seems to be race in who can produce the most esoteric brand of coffee. With all the certifications that marketers are using to sell coffee, it seems that the quality and enjoyable nature of coffee gets lost.

    Ultimately coffee is intensely personal. Everyday people make memories over a cup of coffee. Today’s media message needs to focus not so much on the production of coffee but on all those moments in life that are enjoyed with coffee.

  16. I have been giving is some thought as well and I think you made some good points about uniting under one banner. Now the question is how do we move forward under that banner and who is underneath it?

    Oh ya and who is organizing and leading the charge?

    No answers here, just more thoughts…

  17. As a member of the media I have to say there is no shortage of great stories in coffee. I’ve pitched quite a few, but the response was almost always some version of “I like to drink it, but I’m not interested in reading about it.” That’s an impossible hurdle and certainly doesn’t exist at every publication, but if you look at what usually gets in national magazines (my area; I won’t comment on TV–except, Isn’t it by definition dumbed-down?–or radio) it’s either explaining the basics or showing the latest odd gizmo or perhaps an insanely expensive machine or bean. I have to agree with the comment that specialty coffee actually gets its fair share of coverage. My frustration is that some really great stories–the people primarily–don’t get nearly the national attention they deserve.

  18. On second thought-

    I’m not really concerned about how the mainstream media portrays coffee or the lack of “cohesiveness” in the community when speaking to the media.

    What I am concerned about is the complete lack of media/community scrutiny within our niche of the coffee industry.

  19. Jim:

    Thanks for the interesting post and for making good use of Malcolm Gladwell’s writing. (I confess I resisted reading him for the longest time for all the wrong reasons – “something as popular as The Tipping Point CAN’T be any be good” – but ultimately my defenses wore down. I began to read him – a lot – and find myself thinking about his work long after I have finished reading it.)

    I think there is a lot to comment on here in your post and the comments it has provoked. The one issue I wonder most about, however, seems like a potential obstacle to a more coherent and coordinate approach to messaging among you around differentiated coffees – is there actually a coherent agenda to be pushed? Can everyone agree on what the issues would be and how to articulate them most effectively through blogs and baristas? And wouldn’t the cartel-ization of communication among the quality avant-garde create serious incentives for defection? After all, quality-obsessed roasters are all working hard now to differentiate themselves from those less focused on quality. When everyone at the farthest reaches of the quality spectrum is speaking from the same script, won’t it be tempting for a few to find points of disagreement to differentiate themselves – even if only just a little – from what the other guy is serving?

    Just thoughts.

    In the end, I would love to see you or someone else of your stature in the industry try to draft a manifesto and coordinate communication among the quality pioneers. It would certainly change the conversation…

    Thanks, as always.

    Michael

  20. Thanks, coffeeprince. I will second the suggestion about starting at origin with any effort among the high priests of quality to unify message. I live and work at origin, and am continually frustrated by how absent the farmer is from most accounts of specialty coffee, and how formulaic the approach to origin tends to be in mainstream media when the topic turns to farmers – boilerplate language about Fair Trade Certification and “additional income”; ascendant Direct Trade roasters crowing about how their trade is direct-er, fair-er, etc. There are tons of things going on at origin that are compelling, creative, controversial, triumphant, etc. that escape the notice of the media (and, I suspect, a lot of roasters and retailers).

  21. As a self-confessed non-coffee person–what the elite coffee industry is lacking is a ratings system.

    I know it’s horrible, and it’s inconsistent and doesn’t make sense and you can’t get the nuances of a coffee in there, and coffees are just too different, but it provides a simple system that any layperson could understand. It’s what Robert Parker did to wine, what Michelin and Zagat did to restaurants, Consumer Reports did to microwaves and cars, it’s plainly, simply that.

    How do you explain to someone that a Nespresso sucks compared to a single origin something or other. You explain it in numbers: Nespresso is a 2, the single origin bit gets a 87.

    It’s something the media can easily grasp to and write numbers to and it’s something that a layperson, who wants to pick the right coffee but doesn’t have even 15 minutes out of their day to decipher what everyone writes about in their blog or visit the nearest good 3rd wave cafe, can use.

    Sometimes, a system like this can go out of hand (UK gold taste awards anyone?), but even perhaps, just a book or a guide of the best micro roasters in the world, or a cafe guide that is like zagat or michelin but with cafes, could really push the industry.

    ———

    As a non-coffee person who relies on coffee as an important part of the business, it’s become harder for me to peruse this blog only because the wonderful in-depth information, while great, I just can’t use in daily practice.

    In the Speciality coffee industry, who is the intended audience? If it’s the end consumer who drinks the cup of coffee, I can see that being important: if enough end consumers take the time to group up and vote with their feet, great, as long as there are options around. But I would think that an even better audience to go after is the small cafe owner, who doesn’t know much about coffee, probably doesn’t get the fuss, but ultimately gets the bottom line that if they serve a better cup, they have a much better chance of staying open as the cafe down the street.

    I meet lots of hopeful cafe owners, who want the best coffee, but have no idea what that is, and are just fed lines by salespeople who can manipulate them into thinking ‘yes we’re the best.’ It’s not out of not caring, it’s just that there is no central source of information that a starting up owner can really go to and say ‘here’s who you should contact.’ The SCAE is full of good, and also not so good roasters and how would I know to go to jimseven.com, etc?

    In other words, you guys are all in this bubble–full of information and knowledge and who knows who, but to someone just starting a cafe, I could just as easily say “Illy’s the most expensive, let’s go with that.” You have someone willing to spend the dough on the coffee, invest in the machines, but they went in a totally wrong direction–those are the guys I’d want to reach.

  22. A peculiar thing, all those comments of media attention discontent.
    We have exprerienced the opposite, without any effort we have been in full page news paper articles, magazines, books and radio from Japan to Amsterdam. We are a small cafe and roastery and have been burried by media attention ever since the start and all interested in our coffee. It has been so much that i am starting to see and understand how and what makes the media interrested. And for us it was in hind sight all about lubrication. The media is in the business of selling stories. So it works very simple. If there is no sellable story, nobody will come to report it.
    Through our proffesional back ground (which was not in coffee), in our caffee/roastery, we have not only focussed on improving the coffee it self but also reinvented the eviroment it was served in, the way the coffee was sold, the way the coffee was served etc etc.
    This made it so obvious for the average person that entered our shop, that they were dealing with something different. And so the questions about our coffee were being asked by customers and media constanly. Sometimes i get the feeling that the focusing solely on the coffee quality by the Specialty Coffee scene, not always a good receipe for a sellable story for the media. If more media attention is what you want, than it’s maybe not enough, only to foccus on the coffee quality. this story will only go so far. Creating excitement works better. But then you need to pull on more variables. if you would take a car for an example. If you want a car to go faster, than you can keep putting more power in the engine, but if the wheels are square it makes more sense to tinker on the wheels. If that makes any logic.
    Anyway the funny thing is, that recently, after the Riz Carlton did a piece on us in their magazine, that is published through out all their hotels world wide, the Wall Paper Magazine did an article on us. I really felt a little embarrased, being a mini ambassador for an industry that i am not near the best spokes person for. But it just comes to us. And our message of better coffee gets written.

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