Americans in the ‘50’s were unified by a relatively common culture. Daily media consumption rituals created cohesion and synchrony among citizens. Known for its conformity, the 1950s were more social than individual. Society, culture, and the economy were dominated by a small number of large institutions. Mass media was particularly concentrated. Television networks such as NBC, CBS and ABC, and the widely seen ads that funded these national conglomerates, shaped the anatomy of many American brands during this era.
Baby boomers reminisce about shared experiences — favorite weekly television shows, the personalities of news anchors, and watershed news events. Most Americans experienced new consumer brands in chorus. Lifestyle brands were launched and promoted across a limited selection of popular advertising and broadcast channels.
Consumer brands that could afford to advertise on national shows controlled mind and market share. Through broadcast media, brands achieved super-linear revenue growth — a network effect of sorts. The greater market share these brands captured, the more brand advertising investments could be leveraged. In turn, these up-and-coming brands could benefit from economies of scale, and a virtuous feedback loop that led them to dominate fast-growing consumer markets in the USA.
Through broadcast media and its monopoly on reaching customers, product ownership became a social and cultural signal, and as consumer values changed, so did American brands.
There was one product category — coffee, which mirrored the evolving nature of the American spending economy for well over 70 years. Founded on American consumers’ daily lifestyle habits, coffee mirrored the very essence of changing consumer-brand relationships.
The evolution of coffee consumption has been defined by three distinct waves of coffee culture. It’s driven by ever-evolving media influences and the changing values of American consumers.
First Wave: “Folgers — Mountain Grown for Better Flavor”
The coffee industry mirrored the evolution of class, culture, and communication in America. During World War II, the Army Quartermaster Corps would roast, grind, vacuum pack and ship beans to soldiers overseas. Instant coffee was a part of soldiers’ daily rations and social enjoyment, and American troops grew accustomed to drinking it habitually. Each American soldier consumed an average of 32.5 pounds of coffee, per year. Tied to the U.S. G.I, (slang term for the United States military), soldiers coined a new nickname for their coffee: “A Cup of Joe.”
When soldiers returned from battle, instant coffee saturated grocery stores and supermarkets. Americans stopped buying coffee beans in bulk, and stocked their kitchen shelves with cheap, prepackaged ground coffee instead.
The largest American coffee brand, Folgers, democratized coffee through effective advertising and robust distribution partnerships. A trusted reputation for consistent flavor and instant preparation was pinnacle to the success of Folgers coffee.
Before founder James A. Folger passed away, he wrote to his son, who took over the family coffee business that “money-making was always secondary to a good reputation.” In 1951, Folgers launched its first television commercial, and by the end of the decade, Folgers Coffee was a popular staple of television advertising. Folgers ads targeted families, and in particular, housewives. Their commercials famously featured “Mrs. Olson,” a Swedish housewife and coffee connoisseur who recommended Folgers coffee to her neighbors and friends. In these commercials, Mrs. Olson exalted Folgers for its powerful, delicious coffee scent and bold flavor. Coffee, an expensive luxury once exclusive to the wealthy class, became a convenient, daily household tradition that could be enjoyed by everybody. Folger’s coffee grew steadily in popularity over the next 25 years.
However, cheap coffee had its tradeoffs. The acclaimed aroma of Folgers coffee was labeled as a manufactured fake. As Taylor Clark disclosed in his book, Starbucked: “Folgers systematically lowered the cost of their product by adding ever-cheaper beans into their blends… Just before sealing the powdered coffee in the cans, manufacturers injected a simulated coffee aroma — so when consumers opened the containers, they got a whiff of fresh coffee.” Folgers marketing and engineering wizardry lost its magic as market forces shifted, and by the early 1980s, the quality and reputation of Folgers waned.
As the bastions of Folgers brand — convenient, instant, freeze dried coffee — reached a plateau, another coffee entrepreneur rose to the limelight and created a new coffee lifestyle, which emerged into a lucrative business opportunity.
Second Wave: Rise of the Green and White Siren
The second wave of coffee was led by Starbucks in the 1980s. While traveling in Italy, Starbucks founder Howard Schultz visited espresso bars in Milan, and there, he identified the potential to bring Europe‘s quaint coffeehouse culture to America.
By adding elements such as physical stores, artisanal espresso bars, and regionally labeled coffee to its retail store, Starbucks created an inviting cultural experience. The brand transcended any other coffee house. Starbucks became a hot destination, famous not just for the coffee they sold, but as a coffee-centric social environment, with an alluring, localized European flair.
The Starbucks brand advertised personalization, environmental sustainability, and promised “fair trade” coffee beans. It introduced a consistent and compelling logo image of a “twin-tailed mermaid”, a green and white siren that defined Starbucks’ visual identity. Starbucks added ethical coffee-sourcing guidelines, launched farmer support centers, expanded its collection of stores and opened drive-thru locations. But the Starbucks pursuit didn’t stop there. Seeking economic growth, it ventured far beyond a focus on the aesthetic experience of coffee. Choosing ubiquity over exclusivity, Starbucks expanded its customer base by putting ready-to-drink products in squalid gas stations and 24/7 convenience stores. Today, Starbucks holds a hegemonic position — there are more than 24,000 Starbucks locations in more than 70 countries around the globe.
In the 50’s, Folgers had commoditized the coffee bean, and by the 90’s, Starbucks commoditized the entire coffee experience. This set the table for the third wave of coffee.
Third Wave: Artisanal Java Culture
As workers began to adapt to the internet economy, so did the WiFi enabled coffee shops that doubled as offices for digital nomads.
Within the coffee industry, this is known as the Third Wave of coffee culture, a term coined by Timothy Castle in 1999. This new wave is centered around high-quality beans, and considers coffee as a fine, artisanal experience, rather than a commodity.
Many third wave coffee shops pay special attention to subtle flavors. They’ve ritualized the coffee-brewing and serving process. The trend was propelled by the “coffeeshopification” of cities, a phrase that originated with Stephen Gordon, who predicted that coffee shops would soon replace most retail stores. Coffee shops can now cater to a variety of audiences, including rambunctious teenagers, focused workers, and coffee connoisseurs.
The Perspective Era — Java and Joe
Today, the coffee industry reflects the emerging trends of newly defined consumer brands. Consumers are attracted to brands of a different type, indicative of the “perspective era” that we are entering — an era that will be dominated by people and companies who can promote and defend a unique point of view.
Joe in the Juice is one example known for its visceral ambiance: trendy to some, abrasive to others. Doubling as entertainers, lively young baristas turn frothed milk into decadent flowers atop the lattes they serve, all the while high-fiving customers. Vibrant and zealous, Joe in the Juice is one-of-a-kind. If Abercrombie had a coffee chain, this would be it. With drinks like “Hangover Heaven,” “Go Away Doc,” and “Sex Me Up,” the brand’s edginess restricts it to a narrow cohort of society. FastCompany called the Joe in the Juice chain, a “Hipster Chippendales.”
Anecdotally, as I write this article, seated inside a Joe in the Juice coffee shop in Bryant Park, New York, almost half of customers who walk inside, turn around and escape out the door within ten seconds. It’s too loud. Not a single senior citizen has lasted more than a minute. More bar than coffee shop, more EDM than jazz, the bass is thumping, and I hear more laughs than typing keyboards — a polar contrast from the Starbucks down the street. With Diplo blasting through its overpowering speakers the store has congregated a large group of sporty, energetic youth, who thrive on a cacophony of environmental stimulus.
Blue Bottle Coffee is another example, and expands the sensory palette of coffee by combining intricate taste and complex flavor. Blue Bottle serves coffee connoisseurs who yearn for artisan coffee. Polished, yet unpretentious, Blue Bottle obsesses over the chemistry of tang and chicory — a quest to perfect the art of constructing coffee. Founder James Freeman sees coffee as a divine experience. In his book, The Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee, he proclaims: “Coffee makes us the people we want to be. I am actually able to change the brain chemistry of my customers. Making coffee is a performance that lasts 90 seconds, and that alters the people who experience it.”
Blue Bottle isn’t the only brand that sees coffee as sacred. San Francisco’s Four Barrel and Portland’s Counter Culture have cultivated deep relationships with coffee farmers, and their distinctive plantations. Each roast comes from a unique climate, soil, and geographical region, each bean, a unique story. In the spirit of the third wave, they’ve retreated away from the mechanized mainstream and towards artisanal experiences.
Coffee: An Extension of Our Daily Selves
Recent shifts in the coffee industry are indicative of the fast-changing relationships between consumers and the brands they behold. Coffee brands, which once relied on friction for market dominance, are now subject to widespread competition.
Tiago Forte, a productivity coach for knowledge workers, describes this phenomenon as a paradigm shift from the attention era to the perspective era.
Brand attention was once optimized for attracting “eyeballs” and saturating consumer attention. This strategy no longer works. Our information rich world has created an attention deficit.
Allocating brand attention most effectively to relevant sources, amidst the wealth of information, will only become more difficult. Across industries, barriers to entry and threats by competing brands are collapsing — and rapidly changing. Tiago Forte illustrates how we’re shifting from a world of scarcity to one of abundance, thereby entering a new epoch: the perspective era. Forte predicts that people — and by extension, companies — will offer “perspectives-as-a-service:”
Joe in the Juice is for the hip; Blue Bottle is for coffee connoisseurs; Counter Culture is for the environmentally conscious.
In this social media age, consumer reach is a commodity. The playing field that Folgers built its brand on no longer exists. It follows that the best coffee brands won’t merely convey information, but rather they’ll engage their niche markets with a singular, one-of-a-kind coffee experience.
“Point of view is that quintessentially human solution to information overload, an intuitive process of reducing things to an essential relevant and manageable minimum… In a world of hyper-abundant content, a point of view will become the scarcest of resources.” — Paul Saffo
To compete in this caffeine-crazy modern era, brands must define and embody a compelling point of view. Perspective era brands are defined not by the products themselves — what they make — but by the unique outlook of the brand. They appeal not to the masses, but to hyper-niche consumer segments. They attract distinct sects of people; they engage and magnify individuality. Many consumers today consider their favorite brands an extension and expression of their own evolving identity.
Third wave consumers express their individuality through a complex combination of their own, unique perspectives and personalized brand experiences — one full-bodied macchiato at a time.