Many in the coffee industry speak volumes about wanting to market themselves to the public as the “new wine.” But if we examine the practices the industry has taken on to accomplish any of this, it has failed miserably on nearly all fronts. What becomes all too clear is that the coffee industry either doesn’t want to engage with its customers or awkwardly has no clue how to do it — despite the many hints and clues left by the wine industry it supposedly looks up to.
Let’s examine the closest things the coffee industry offers in terms of public outreach, contrasting them with similar practices in the wine industry.
Death by barista competition
The new season of barista competitions is upon us once again (this is the original inspiration behind this post). Barista championships are widely considered one of the prouder, most marketable achievements of the specialty coffee industry. And yet they exhibit all the hallmarks of a navel-gazing insider event that feigns courting but really disregards the coffee consuming public.
Whether in person or via online video streams, following a few seasons of them creates its own form of repetitive stress injury. Bear witness to a few consecutive seasons, and it’s little wonder that people in the coffee business for any length of time simply stop attending. And despite a frequently-stated desire for a TV-ready, Top Chef-like equivalent for the coffee industry, these competitions are even more tedious for the coffee consuming public.
The competitions demonstrate a form of precision gymnastics to which no retail coffee consumer can relate. Glowing red timers on the walls; a dog-show-like presentation complete with mic’ed up headset and mood music; a hunched-over team of clipboard carriers who scurry like roaches as they inspect spent pucks and leftover grinds in the hopper. Even the specialty drinks compulsories are completely disconnected from anything resembling coffee in a retail environment. (As we’ve always liked to say, “if it requires a recipe, it’s not coffee.”)
To make matters worse — or at least more puzzling to consumers — the USBC has now introduced the concept of the Brewers Cup: to exhalt the art of pouring hot water over coffee grounds. Then throw on more formal recognition of latte art competitions — the industry’s push to elevate coffee not so much as a consumable, but as an art medium not entirely unlike pen & ink wash or watercolors. Huh?
Can the coffee industry produce a public event that isn’t a game show?
If we look over to the wine industry, just how many of their public events are modeled after reality TV game shows? A competitive sommelier beat-down, perhaps? Painting with wine contests? PBS surprisingly opted to renew The Winemakers for a second season, but microscopically few wine fans have ever heard of it.
There are competitive events such as the SF International Wine Competition, but they actively engage public participation, offer public education, and generally prevent these events from becoming industry navel-gazing or a mere spectator sport. However, the wine industry frequently engages with consumers through targeted consumer appreciation events as varied as the Rhone Rangers or the Family Winemakers of California or even cultural attaché marketing arms such as local chapters of the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin.
And coffee has… well… the SCAA conference. The conference made recent overtures to invite the culinary world to their events. But that’s still just business-to-business marketing that completely ignores consumers. With coffee, it’s as if the trade is all that matters. This is also reflected in the industry’s most popular publications — i.e., magazines such as Roast, Fresh Cup, Barista, etc.
Yet when you compare the number of coffee consumers to wine consumers, and the frequency that each consumes their respective products, doesn’t this suggest gaping holes in the coffee industry’s consumer outreach strategy?
Making consumers bend to the industry vs. the other way around
Even when the coffee industry makes a direct attempt to engage consumers, it can blow up on the launchpad. When it tried to court consumers with the concept of comparative coffee tastings, it instead opted for the industry trade practice of cupping — with all its obscene slurps, crust making-and-breaking, and spinning a lot of defect detection as if it were a social event (meat inspection, anyone?). As such, coffee cupping resembles nothing like the experiences that made your average coffee consumer a fan of the stuff to begin with.
The idea of using coffee “disloyalty cards” to introduce consumers to new coffee houses is a more clever consumer outreach program that has caught on in a number of cities. But none of these programs have had much impact beyond a small audience enthralled with their initial novelty and a few local press releases.
And if you look at the way quality coffee is marketed in the press today to consumers, it’s as if the industry is hell-bent on a mission to prevent good coffee from being consumer-friendly and approachable. If you purchase a retail coffee beverage in a shop, consumers are barraged with price-tag hype and the programmed obsolescence of the latest espresso machine. Consumers brewing at home are bewildered by the pour-over arms race.
Wine may have more than its fair share of gadget hawkers — e.g., the next Rube Goldberg-esque cork pull or aerator gadget. However, wine consumers aren’t inundated by a monthly one-upsmanship competition telling them that how they appreciated wine last month is now wrong, outdated, and no longer expensive enough. We cannot say that about quality coffee, whose public marketing strategy has more in common with 4G smartphones than with wine.
What we’d like to see as coffee consumers
As much as the coffee industry has promoted the idea, we’ve always felt comparing itself to the wine industry was generally a bad idea. Even so, there are simple things the coffee industry could be doing that might include consumers in their success — rather than putting up barriers, refusing to accommodate consumers, and yet still hoping they still find a way to engage themselves to keep their industry afloat.
Given the belief in coffee terroir, why not demonstrate and educate consumers on it? For example, we’d love to see a coffee-growing-nation-sponsored, consumer-focused event that explores the various roaster expressions of the latest crops from, say, Guatemala. Or if not a tasting event based on regions, how about growing seasons? The Cup of Excellence program has elements that can be applied here. However, it is modeled as purely a trade event and many coffee growing nations aren’t even represented.
Come on, guys. We love your stuff. Why do you have to make it so ridiculously hard to participate, let alone enjoy it?
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