Coffee: When Simple Things Change Everything

I, like many people, start my day with a steaming cup of coffee. When I was younger the process of waking up began with a book, the newspaper, or occasionally a pad of paper as I reflected on something that felt meaningful at the time. Today, my coffee is taken with a shot of news via the iPad and a heaping mound of email. The consistent element through time has always been coffee. But even as coffee has remained in some ways the same coffee culture and my personal practices around it, from the brand I drink to its role as a post-lunch pick-me-up has changed over time.

Anthropologist William Roseberry wrote in 1996 that coffee drinkers would have had a tough time finding specialty coffee in the 1970s, pointing out that “the roasts were light and bland.” Coffee was uniform, a commodity, not unlike gasoline or saltines. Due to changing tastes of a younger generation weaned on soda, consumption was in fact on the decline. As the now famous story goes, Kenneth Roman, Jr., the president of Ogilvy and Mather, made a suggestion to the company’s client, Maxwell House: emphasize quality, value, and image by creating segmented products to increase appeal. And to emphasize value, quality, and image, the consumer needed to be made more aware about what made coffee worth the price. Specific blends and origins were advertised, lifestyles were marketed, and roasting types were displayed for consumers to see. And so it was that the specialty coffee market was born.

Coffee was meant to permeate every aspect of life. And while many of the large manufacturers have seen market share decline over time, smaller roasters marketing individual brands have found a niche, even if it has meant a higher cost to consumers. Coffee moved from being a commodity to something we savor, we contemplate, we find meaning in. From the brand and styles we drink to the places in which we drink it, coffees has become personal. We’re identified by the brand we buy, by the coffee shops we frequent, and by the types of coffee we drink (a Cubano, a cup of fair trade dark roast, a bag of organic Blue Mountain, etc.).  And we do love our coffee:

  • a third of the country’s population drinks coffee daily
  • half of the population drinks coffee at least weekly
  • two-thirds of the population has coffee at least occasionally

Among those who drink coffee, the average consumption is higher now than it has been in past years. The average person in the U.S. spends around $25 on coffee each week. A fair amount of that is spent out of home, but the coffee we do buy for home brewing isn’t the $1.99 stuff of yesteryear. In other words, we aren’t necessarily drinking more coffee than other generations, but we are spending more money on coffee. Younger generations in particular have a lot of disposable income but they aren’t spending it like their parents did. Instead of cars and homes, they’re spending it on a better food and beverage experience. Indeed, we’re seeing that the focus on quality and experience is finding its way into other generations. The cycle of change has taken root and is beginning to cut across age groups.

And all of this seems to point in a new direction for food and beverages in general. We’ve been taught to pay for coffee; for artistry, for the geography, for the experience. These factors contribute to a re-valuation of the beverage and its role in defining our identities, personally and culturally. Can the same be done with, say, a hamburger or a yard beer? By re-couching something that once represented modernity but has come to represent blandness, uniformity and mass production as something experiential, can we reinvent a category? I believe we can. Kenneth Roman, Jr., believed we could.  

Coffee offers us a way to look at our relationship to the larger world and see that sometimes our choices are not really our own. Brands create us even as we create them. It is not the transaction, but the relationship that matters. 

Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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