Is specialty coffee more of a lifestyle than a product?

  • Specialty coffee has become so prominent that it is now permeating other industries as a fashionable product
  • Many celebrities now own or endorse coffee brands – Leonardo Dicaprio, Tom Hanks, Ryan Reynolds, and The Weeknd are just a few
  • A recent survey showed 34% of US consumers ordered a drink after having heard about it via social media

FOR MANY, coffee is more than the sum of its parts. This has been the case for years – it’s a cherished part of a morning routine, or a peaceful moment out of a busy day.

Now, the idea that coffee is something “more” than a drink is being encompassed by consumer behaviour. Increasingly, specialty coffee is something that people identify with, which raises an important question: is it becoming more of a lifestyle than a product?

There are several reasons to explore here. Companies use social media to market their brand and products, often aiming to make them “trend”. In turn, users identify with “aspirational marketing” and may consider purchasing the product as a step towards achieving a certain lifestyle. Recent polls from OnePulse revealed that 34% of US customers have ordered a drink after hearing about it via social media.

Similarly, marketing efforts by large coffee chains present coffee not as a product, but rather as a way of life that resonates with what customers might aspire for.

“The big issue that I fear is that the commercial coffee sector utilises audiovisual markers that are commonly associated with specialty coffee and ‘piggyback’ on the implicit promises of quality, sustainability and traceability without delivering on them,” says Jana Elicker, head of education at Supremo Coffee.

Furthermore, a number of celebrities (including Snoop Dogg, Jimmy Butler, Hugh Jackman, and The Weeknd,) have launched their own coffee brands or established partnerships within the industry. For better or worse, this has certainly helped position coffee as a lifestyle product.

This isn’t limited to third wave coffee culture, however. George Clooney has had a long relationship with Nespresso, and Brad Pitt has recently partnered with De’Longhi.

For these celebrities, it’s a safe conversion. The values of specialty coffee are easy for them to agree with and they resonate with their audience – which is a great way to make more money while outlining their positive image.

specialty coffee is becoming a lifestyle product

Celebrity influences

This can then draw more focus on the specialty coffee community. A common argument for celebrity coffee brands is that they can draw attention to some of the issues we face in the sector.

“There are examples where celebrities start businesses in the specialty coffee sector and, by extension, introduce new consumers to the sector, which might then spark interest to take a closer look at the product and create more awareness of bigger issues,” says Jana.

“A shift towards the lifestyle angle from within the specialty coffee sector, while possibly alienating their ‘regular’ consumers, might have a wider reach to a new audience and consequently has perhaps more opportunity to spread the knowledge, ideas and values that are generally associated with specialty coffee.”

For instance, Hugh Jackman’s Laughing Man brand works with coffee-growing communities in Ethiopia, Colombia and Peru to improve knowledge and infrastructure to grow coffee sustainably. The brand is also committed to broader social welfare investments.

Additionally, Blue Bottle donates to The Weeknd’s XO Humanitarian Fund, which supports the UN World Food Program. The Samra Origins range he launched, meanwhile, celebrates his Ethiopian heritage and draws attention to the country’s coffee traditions.

While those examples are commendable, however, not all celebrity partnerships shed light on the coffee sector’s challenges.

Historically, partnerships were the territory of larger commercial brands. For example, George Clooney is estimated to have earned more than $40 million from his partnership with Nespresso – whose capsules have come under fire in the last ten years for the volume of waste they produce.

A threat, or an opportunity?

Beyond celebrity partnership, there are a number of other factors driving specialty coffee’s uptake as a “lifestyle”. These include health and wellness, for instance.

“While people may not always have this evidence front of mind when enjoying their favourite brew, the takeaway is that coffee drinkers live longer, healthier, happier lives,” says William Murray, president and CEO of the US National Coffee Association (NCA).

Many brands have embraced health and wellness as part of the “lifestyle” of specialty coffee, pointing to research which links coffee consumption to preventing diseases, slowing down ageing, reducing the risk of depression, and more.

Convenience is another factor, which has driven the prominence of RTD coffee beverages – now favoured by younger consumers. The RTD coffee sector is expected to grow annually by 8% until 2030, whereas roasted specialty coffee is only increasing at a rate of 5% per annum over the same period.

Some mourn the commercialisation of the sector, while others see opportunity for coffee to capitalise on the “lifestyle” label. But for better or worse, this is a symbol of the commercialisation of specialty coffee – long since heralded as a trademark of coffee’s fourth wave.

While there are other factors at play here, coffee brands ultimately have to be strategic about which segments they go after, and how they plan to go after them. Whether or not it’s a threat to what gives specialty coffee its identity, there’s no denying that marketing coffee as a “lifestyle” will help brands reach more people in the medium and long term.

Coffee Intelligence

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