A customer conundrum

I’ve brought up the idea previously of needing to grow the number of customers choosing to drink coffee at independent businesses. The growing number of business aren’t bringing enough new consumers to the market so are fighting over ever-shrinking slices of the pie.

Consumption as a whole remains strong. Plenty of people are buying coffee, but they’re choosing to do it in chain stores. In the UK, and in much of the rest of the world, growth in the branded coffee chain sector has been healthy and doesn’t seem to be suffering due to the growth of speciality.

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.

So here’s the problem: what we perceive as our biggest asset to win and retain customers doesn’t work the way we want it to. Not enough people are interested in upgrading the coffee they drink. Now we have to find a way to convince people to change their lives, their routines, their route to work, or where they choose to escape the day, and to reject the cups coffee they were previously happy with.

We’d be far more effective if we did this as a group. I think there’s a lot to be said for customers embracing small businesses. Money tends to stay in the community, and almost always inside the national economy. Small businesses (mostly) pay their taxes, they contribute culture and value to their neighbourhoods.

The point of resistance is that a campaign around this will promote businesses we don’t want to promote: independent businesses who sell terrible coffee. There are plenty of these, and we consider them the enemy much in the same way we consider the branded coffee chains the enemy. Great coffee shops are not special because they are independent, too much other work has gone in and I think we’d be reluctant not to talk about that.

Perhaps it feels like giving in; to talk about something other than how good the coffee is.

The way I see it, there are a few options:

  • Refine what you do, weather the storm, and hope that once a few of your competitors close they don’t get bought up by a chain too.

  • Experiment alone with different messaging, aware that quality remains important to your business, to your staff and your existing customers. Don’t compromise on what you are passionate about, but experiment with what lures potential customers through your door.

  • Collaborate with others. This is a problem that affects everyone in your industry. Getting good at marketing to people buying coffee from the chains has long term benefits to all independent businesses. It is both selfish and a little altruistic.

I’d fall into the category of the third group. 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. For people to discover great businesses, to discover (for themselves) a cup of coffee that tastes so much better than what they’re used to, for them to discover a cafe they can build a lasting relationship with, to discover their cafe.

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.