Are coffee brands all starting to look the same?

  • Between 1991 and 2015, the number of coffee shops in the US increased from 1,650 to 31,490
  • The beginning of the specialty coffee movement was often associated with minimalism
  • Scandinavian brands such as Tim Wendelboe influenced aesthetic choices across the sector

AS THE specialty coffee sector continues to become more saturated, standing out has never been more important. However, while third wave coffee brands historically prided themselves on their unique branding, many of them are now starting to look the same.

Minimalism emerged as an artistic movement in the years following World War II and is now a familiar concept across fashion, architecture, interior design, product development, and more.

In the coffee industry, some argue that the reason minimalist design took such a hold was, in part, because it coincided with the 2007/08 financial crisis. It was around this time that many of the early trendsetters in specialty coffee emerged. The impact of the crisis could well have meant that these newer, less-recognisable brands chose to turn away from extravagance and embrace simplicity.

Others, meanwhile, suggest that minimalism is often associated with traits and characteristics that align with specialty coffee. Research suggests that minimalist principles contribute to a “peaceful and meaningful life”, with simplicity in design linked to improved mental health and mindfulness – both important discussion points in specialty coffee culture.

In many ways, minimalism has been an important conversation topic as specialty coffee has evolved. For many, it reduces distractions and the amount of “visual noise”, helping businesses convey their values more clearly while letting the coffee do the talking.

“Maybe it comes from the idea that it’s about the coffee itself and not the design of the package,” says Lex Wenneker, the owner of Friedhats Coffee Roasters

“The idea of specialty coffee was about going back to the core of the product itself, the taste of the bean. Maybe coffee brands thought they needed to go back to the core of the design as well – a blank page.”

The question now is whether or not the tide is turning for minimalism. As brands have invested more in their branding, it’s clear there is a transition away from believing less is more, to “louder” and more vibrant designs.

coffee brands often go for minimalism

Is the Scandinavian influence disappearing?

The emergence of minimalism in the specialty coffee sector is often linked to the influence of early trendsetting Nordic brands such as Solberg & Hansen and Tim Wendelboe. Scandinavian minimalism was evident both in their design philosophy and the way they roasted coffee.

In recent years, Nordic coffee culture has been defined by lighter roasts and a desire not to “interfere” with coffee’s natural flavours. This was reflected in many Nordic specialty coffee roasters’ branding. And given how prominent Scandinavian influence was in the early days of specialty coffee, it was easy to conclude that minimalism soon became the default.

However, this may be changing. Instead of associating it with these values, many believe minimalism is actually more a result of creative avoidance – often referred to as “small m minimalism”.

In response, many brands seeking to differentiate themselves are abandoning simplicity in favour of bold and “maximalist” design – which insteads celebrates extravagance and complexity.

There’s a parallel here with how specialty coffee culture is evolving, too. Exotic and experimental processing methods have become increasingly prominent, in spite of the investment often associated with them. Extremely high prices are being paid for ultra-high-quality auction-winning lots. It’s easy to see that the simplicity-first approach of the early 21st century is disappearing.

coffee brands are only recently opting for colour

Loud and proud

The impact of technology and mass-produced minimalist design is said by some to be the “death of detail”, erasing any discernible characteristics that make something unique. In other words, minimalism is becoming cheap and unmemorable.

For coffee brands, a proclivity for minimalism now communicates a conventionality and lack of imagination to consumers. This lack of differentiation has contributed to diminishing brand loyalty among consumers in the coffee industry.

“It was easier to differentiate back in the days when specialty coffee just started,” says Lex. “All you needed was a brown paper bag with a white label on it, and a funky Ethiopian coffee inside.”

Once common in specialty coffee shops, plain kraft paper or single-coloured bags are now being replaced en masse by colourful, custom-printed coffee packaging. Likewise, minimalist and industrial coffee shops are now giving way to new influences in interior design.

Others believe that preferences have shifted on the consumer side. “Customers are slowly getting used to the fact that coffee can also come in a can, a box or a bottle,” Lex says. “I think for new roasters, it’s less scary to do something a little different.”

Now, Lex believes the trick for new coffee brands will be finding the right balance. 

“I think coffee is not a super creative industry, so I think most brands will just go with a design that jumps out, but not too much,” he says. “They will want to make something unique and authentic, but everyone needs to like it. And if everyone likes it, nobody will love it.”

Whether you like it or not, specialty coffee is finally seeing a departure from minimalism. Brands are feeling increasingly prepared to take creative risks with their packaging, rather than relying on a tried-and-tested formula. But, as the industry continues to experiment with new shapes, patterns, and colours, there’s a pertinent question to ask: will it lose its sense of identity along the way?