Growing Coffee – a BrandingWire Challenge

This is a fictitious case study. The BrandingWire collaborative, a group of 12 branding bloggers, are all commenting together on this challenge (see the other posts at Even if the case is fictitious, I’d be surprised if one or more coffee companies don’t glean some insight from it!

The BrandingWire team has been approached by a small coffee company in mid-America. They have a few retail stores, have been in business for 8 years, and are moderately successful – reasonably profitable, no debt – operations are funded out of steady cash flow. They roast their own beans on-site (and boy, does it smell wonderful!), their retail sites are wide-open, relaxed, and kind-of country-funky. There is very strong local attachment to the company, but little recognition outside of the geographical area (it’s a family operation but the owner is committed to doing whatever it takes to create a thriving business). Their brand name is OK but certainly not anything special. They have a lame tagline (Great coffee at great prices!) and no distinctive identity pieces. The logo looks like it came out of a branding bargain bin.

They want to grow, though they’re not entirely sure what is the most profitable path…more retail? Franchising? Mail-order? Corporate coffee service? Something new and unique? They have plenty of capacity to crank out more coffee beans, and can easily add more without undue financial strain if growth really takes off.

They sense the growing competition. Starbucks, of course. McDonald’s is upscaling their coffee. Caribou Coffee is going to move in 30 minutes away. Dunkin’ Donuts may be heading in their direction. How do they distinguish themselves?

That’s the challenge for each member of the BrandingWire posse. Here are some of the ideas I’d bring to the table.

1. Most profitable potential growth with least capital risk – undoubtedly, building up mail-order sales. There is only so much profitable growth to be realized by opening more retail outlets, and it is very capital intensive. I’d go after a broader audience, along the lines of the approach of Gevalia and other suppliers.

2. Creating an approach as a “virtual supplier” provides the opportunity to create a whole new identity. I’d trade on the story of the current stores and identity, but I’d launch a new, catchy name (CoffeeWire. GetRoasted. JavaDirect. RoastedJolt…lots of possibilities) that is universal and memorable.

3. As the heart of the brand identity, there has to be both a story, and a unique differentiator. I’d advise spinning the brand story as the small-town coffee roaster that has satisfied its faithful (rabid) clientele, and now wants to bring “best coffee practices” to a wider audience (e.g., Mill Mountain Coffee in Virginia). As a differentiator, you can work the bean angle (“our mountain-grown beans are from the finest estates in northeastern Guatemala, hand-picked by nephews of Juan Valdez”), but I think that is overdone and not easy for an end-user to relate to. I’d go for the roasting process approach, which, if well-described, can be almost irresistible – who doesn’t want to try coffee that has undergone some super-secret roasting process that produces superior results? Kobrick’s Coffee Company effectively takes this approach on their website.

4. Speaking of differentiators, one of the areas that seems to me under-developed is creative packaging. Bags – whether foil or paper – of beans or grounds all seem pretty much the same. Now I’m no consumer packaging guy, so I’m not sure what ideas are best – but what about a cube or a bag that is clear? With some measurement units along the side, to make it easier to figure out how much to put in the filter for a full pot? Coffee is very powerful for the olfactory sense; why not go after the visual as well? I’m sure there have to be other creative ideas. How about something so simple as a coffee tip/factoid put in little prize package in each bag (and 1 in every 50 is a coupon for a free 1/2 pound of an exotic variety)?

5. Next, I’d look at the whole area of personalization. I can envision a couple of “sliders” in the section where you order YOUR special coffee – one slide to choose roasting (light to dark), the other to choose grind (coarse to fine, or just whole beans). For an extra charge, you can even create a personalized blend of beans, for those willing to make a year commitment of monthly shipments with a credit card. At this point, the coffee is no longer a commodity – the company becomes a unique supplier, helping the customer craft a unique identity with his “own” coffee.

6. Now, how to get traction in the marketplace…first of all, an attractive website with e-commerce capability is a must. Colorado’s Steaming Bean Coffee Co. is a good example. Beside the general navigational ease of the site, the two elements I like best are the little Cart: status link in the upper right, and the personal touch from the CEO (“Please notify me…”) in the left column. Then, I’d go after influential bloggers; find a large number of bloggers inside and outside the coffee blogging arena, and send a complimentary 1/2 pound bag. Ask for their input, either privately or publicly (on their blogs). Bloggers like coffee (by and large), and have an outsized influence. Growing a mail-order market will require cultivating recommendations by thought-leaders.

7. Finally, after all of the previous steps are in place, I’d go for a public campaign. A David vs. Goliath “we dare to take on the big guys” promotion. Have a PR consultant or group take the best coffee you make, package it in plain bags along with (say) 4 other well-known coffee brands (Starbucks, Peets, Caribou, Dunkin’ Donuts, etc.) and line up some companies – say, 10 software companies – that are willing to serve as judges. The java-drinkers get a free coffeemaker and five unmarked bags of coffee, numbered for survey ratings. They blind-rate the different brews and see who comes out on top. The entire process gets blogged, Twittered, mapped, etc. It has the element of risk, of suspense, of daring – could be a great PR stunt if done right. Especially if David comes out on top!

JavaDirect. It’s your coffee.

Those are some of my ideas. Why not hop into the comments and toss in some of yours?

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(Image credit: Flickr)


Get more high-voltage ideas at The members of this collaborative are:

    Olivier Blanchard
    Becky Carroll
    Derrick Daye
    Kevin Dugan
    Lewis Green
    Ann Handley
    Gavin Heaton
    Martin Jelsema
    Valeria Maltoni
    Drew McLellan
    Patrick Schaber
    Steve Woodruff

10 Responses to Growing Coffee – a BrandingWire Challenge

  1. Pingback: Brewing up a New Brand « The BrandingWire blog

  2. Hey, this is good work with such little information. I like the personalization options very much — I would shop at a coffee place that allowed me to create my own blend. Then again, I am quite spoiled, being from Italy. You also use story, which is what gets people into the conversation; we would work well together.

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  4. Wow, Steve, you’ve given us a lot to chew on! I’m not sure which way I’d go, but alternate distribution, particularly through a web site is intriguing. With the judicious use of keywords, you could set up different web sites, each targeting a multiple-user market such as church groups, clinic waiting rooms, fire houses and other “long tail” markets where you could taylor product offerings and messages. Good work. P.S.: Thanks for creating, and being the Sheriff of, the BrandingWire posse.

  5. Lewis Green says:

    I like the idea of building up mail-order sales. I know of a nonprofit coffee company that focuses entirely on selling coffee this way. Their strategy is to encourage customers to create an automatic reorder (e.g., a pound every three weeks).

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  7. Steve,

    Hmm, the packaging idea is a nice one, isn’t it? I had mentioned setting up a coffee tasting like a wine tasting, but I didn’t take it to the packaging.

    With all the hoopla that wine packaging has received…you are right on the money that coffee could do the same thing.

    Lots of great ideas here. Thanks for corraling the posse!


  8. Steve, this is a great piece. I especially like the idea of my own personalized blend of coffee. Much as one can create their own perfume or label their own wine, being able to create your own coffee blend would be really cool if one could have their own customized packaging with it (combining a few of your ideas here).

    I am looking forward to next month’s BrandingWire!

  9. Pingback: BrandingWire - All Together Now! « The BrandingWire blog

  10. Pingback: Coffee - What’s the Storyville? « StickyFigure

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