Coffee Culture in Asia and What It Means to Product Development

Coffee shops are 
more than places to get a beverage or pick-me-up. Coffee shops play an 
important role in socializing. They convey a different meaning in the 
collective psyche than do taverns, restaurants and other places of shared 
food and drink. From the independent shop to the corporate behemoth, coffee 
shops provide a space of comfort.

Stepping outside cultures where coffee has been part of the dialog for centuries, the beverage is finding new meaning yet again.  Coffee culture is emerging in Asia and it is fascinating. The socio-cultural role the coffee shop plays seems tied to a sense of modernity and international sophistication, not unlike the role of the sushi restaurant found in every town over 250,000 in the US.  Like all cultural transferences, it takes on new meaning and new elements of material culture.  Almost one third of Chinese for example now consume coffee outside their home. As in many other countries, Asian coffee shops are more about the gathering of friends for a social event than about the coffee itself – the coffee is a facilitator and a symbol of a postmodern world. Add to that the fact that few Chinese households own a coffeemaker and it adds another layer of complexity, both in terms of products and the places coffee is consumed.

Coffee shops are opening rapidly, but many cannot afford the large brewing equipment needed for commercial sales. Some of the roasters are making the brewing equipment available to the specialty houses in return for agreeing to purchase a certain number of pounds each year.

In Indonesia, one of the major coffee exporting countries in the world has a strong and well-established coffee culture. Most of the fresh coffee is consumed by the older generation who has grown up using the product and enjoys the taste. And it’s worth noting that coffee is as much an ingredient as it is a drink in and of itself.

So what?  It’s all very interesting but why does it matter?  Because it exemplifies the complexities of developing products and messaging strategies for any product on a global stage.  We often work as if our worldview is the starting point, or we forget to look beyond the product to its use and meaning in a broader cultural context.

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