Why we’re still seeing showy gimmicks at trade shows

coffee trade show fireworks
  • Gimmicky event centrepieces are considered “old-school” but still popular at coffee trade shows
  • This is in contrast to minimum legal wages in some coffee-producing countries accounting for 44% to 66% of a living wage
  • Despite this, brands continue to invest in party tricks

TAKING a gamble on showy gimmicks is an old marketing trick – an easy (but expensive) way for brands to stand out and grab attention. However, it can also highlight the disconnect between wealthy, consumer markets, and harsher realities upstream of the coffee supply chain.

Yet trade shows are still rife with them – why?

Many industry actors face growing competition from emerging sectors like RTD, leading to some brands taking the bold statement route at trade shows. 

Brewtech operated a free tattoo booth at the 2023 Melbourne International Coffee Expo (MICE) – a wow factor to attract visitors to the stand and offer them something memorable that they could “cherish for years to come”. 

This year, several brands made waves at the 2024 Specialty Coffee Expo with show-stopping gadgets. Espresso machine company Mavam Espresso drew both praise and criticism with its 24-carat-gold espresso machine, while Wingman Cobot’s ‘Tom the barista robot’ turned heads for both its innovation and price tag.

“The gimmicks definitely help grab attention at trade shows and differentiate between brands,” says Spencer Ross, Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. 

“But they almost have to because otherwise, the ‘specialness’ of them is lost. If everyone is special, no one is special, and if no one is special, what justifies the high cost of participating in a trade show? The idea is about coming up with new ways of enhancing the consumer experience.” 

Despite often being impressive, these flashy gimmicks can rub some industry stakeholders the wrong way. 

Although intended to provide something entertaining and attention-grabbing, they can also act as an uncomfortable reminder of the unequal distribution of wealth between consumer and producer countries overall. 

One sector, two worlds

Much of the coffee industry is built on the work of coffee producing communities, who for the most part struggle to make a living wage. 

Estimates from the Specialty Coffee Association indicate that in some coffee-producing countries, minimum legal wages only accounted for 44-66% of a living wage. A Fairtrade price study also found that most coffee producing families don’t earn a living income, and that many live below the poverty line. 

At the same time, the global market for coffee machines is expected to generate a revenue of more than $12 billion USD in 2024, and the roasted coffee bean market will be worth $468 billion. 

Despite this unsettling contrast, some argue that consumer brands and producers operate in two separate sectors. They posit that during economic hard times and heightened competition, each must do what they must to succeed in their respective markets.

“Part of having a large market constituency is that it’s going to have significant differences between market subsegments,” says Spencer. 

“The product gimmicks continue to highlight those differences, especially when it comes to inequality in the industry.”

However, these diametrically opposed realities in the coffee sector continue to coexist and are largely accepted as the norm. Between 2021-2022, the Lavazza Group reported spendings of more than $442 million on promotional and advertising costs; more than the total value of coffee exports from Costa Rica between 2022-2023. 

In this context, leveraging inflated marketing budgets to produce flashy gimmicks with little purpose beyond grabbing attention seems incongruous. 

However, the fact remains that these same companies have to find a way to compete with others, many of whom have similar resources and the desire to stand out. 

Where do brands find the money for party tricks?  

Despite criticism, it doesn’t appear that showy and expensive gimmicks are going anywhere. If anything, they’re becoming more prevalent. At first glance, the associated level of effort hardly seems worth it. However, such stunts and products must ultimately drive business – if not, then why are so many still doing it? 

“For B2B, trade shows are still a mainstay of doing business,” says Spencer. “High price, low-volume products still require personal selling and with a product like coffee, having the in-person product demos becomes a major sales generation point.” 

“Add into the mix the media coverage of these product launches from the trade show floor, and a company can also reach those that don’t get to the trade show for in-person demos.”  

However, looking at ongoing inflationary pressures along the coffee value chain, how can brands still afford these gimmicks? 

As many coffee companies adapt to changes in the market, outside investment has grown. In many cases, this has included acquisitions by larger companies, as well as investment from venture capital. 

There is also surging interest from China and the Middle East to invest and expand their own markets, as well as into these traditional strongholds. With funds coming from both domestic and foreign investors, gimmicky products become a worthwhile investment. 

“Though we might perceive these innovations as gimmicks, these companies are spending money on R&D to come up with products that will fill out a space in the product mix beyond just a day,” Spencer says. “I would imagine them looking for their capital risks to pay off in the form of longevity.”

However, with major upcoming trade shows in coffee-producing countries – including the World of Coffee in Jakarta (2025) and Panama City (2026) – it remains to be seen whether the same gimmicks and displays of wealth will stay as prevalent. 

“To me, the idea of facilitating domestic consumption markets in production-dominant countries is missing from the conversations,” says Spencer. “Why does the gear money flow to Florence, rather than San Salvador or Kigali?”

“What does it mean to reduce some of the travel costs for some farmers, but to showcase high-priced American or Italian-made gear? Will local cafes be able to afford this gear – and which ones?” 

Showstoppers and fancy gimmicks are clearly a long game worth the investment for brands. However, as the geography of consumption and trade shows shifts, and as the industry increasingly questions the effect of its behaviour, how long they will stay relevant remains to be seen.

Coffee Intelligence

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