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It's a humid Friday afternoon in one of the meeting rooms of the Hyatt Regency in Miami, Florida. A meeting of the Environmental Committee of the SCAA is underway, and I have just been introduced as a representative from the Communications Committee. Standing in front of the group, chairman David Griswold of Sustainable Harvest is writing on a flip chart as members suggest topics on environmental issues for next year's SCAA Conference. Some of the topics mentioned include: organic, Quality Assurance International's new certification sheet on bird-friendly coffee, conservation, retail panels, consumer campaigns, water processing, and market trends. I pass a note to Fred Houk from Counter Culture Coffee, asking about standardization criteria, which inspired audible whispers until Griswold stared us down. After we're quieted, Chris London, coffee program director of Consumer's Choice Council (CCC), passes me a copy of the report on Sustainable Coffee for CCC prepared by Paul Rice, Transfair and Jennifer McLean. I accept this with one hand as Chantal Line Carpentier of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation reaches for my other hand with the study conducted by that organization on Mexican shade-grown coffee.

After a while, I realized it was time to excuse myself and visit the International Relations Committee where chairperson Becky McKinnon of Timothy's World Coffee had just announced that tasting and cupping would be a primary emphasis during the SCAA 2001 conference next spring in Miami Beach. Members discussed the importance of LOU's (letters of understanding), which by signing, represents a country's commitment to a high set of standards outlined by this committee. Appellations, marketing partners and educational site visits were discussed. Ultimately, all discussions were focused on creating a quality cup of coffee.

The next morning Paul Katzeff, president of the SCAA, met with the Communications Committee, and stated his goals for the specialty industry: to define our segment of the industry as the "caring segment," and to emphasize the environment, quality of life and quality of industry. He also provided an overview of the marketing partners programs underway with the World Bank and USAID, as well as some of the social benefit programs taking place.

Boarding the plane back home, my tote was much heavier than my suitcase, as it was filled with notes, booklets and handouts. I started reading the material during the flight. The acronyms and technical data made my eyes glass over: I had to take a nap. Yet, there was one compelling message that stood out in every report:


Ted Lingle, executive director of the SCAA, summed it up this way in his opening remarks during the Miami meetings: "We need to redefine the specialty coffee industry by focusing on the bean merchants. We need to rebuild the coffee merchants," he said. He also emphasized that we needed to communicate to consumers while, at the same time, being sensitive to the producer's needs.

Envision a pyramid. Place quality at the top. Everything you do is an objective toward that goal. You can't have quality without sustainable measures; therefore all marketing must include a process to incorporate best practices from seed to cup. Acquaint consumers with quality and taste. Once they have tasted quality, they know what to expect. What they don't understand are complex issues and nebulous technical terms that include acronyms, multiple certification stickers on packaging, and why coffee grown in Kenya that is not shade-grown produces a quality bean--yet coffee that is not shade-grown in Costa Rica is not considered quality. Consumers sort of understand the word "organic," but probably not the differences between plain organic and certified organic. They may be able to identify with coffees that keep birds safe, but they don't connect with shade-grown as a solitary classification. They sort of understand the term appellation, but that is because the wine industry has taught it to them. When it co mes to defining the word brand, consumers have an understanding. The coffee version, mark, might as well be something made with a pencil.

When consumers, the ultimate purchasers of quality coffee, do understand a clear message of quality, it is because instruction has begun at the scientific level, then moved through the process: growers, importers, roasters and retailers. Innovators understand this concept. Let's take a look at some who have shaped our industry into what it is today.

Before specialty coffee was even on the radar screen, the Colombian Coffee Federation created a marketing campaign in 1959 that was foretelling for the specialty coffee industry. Now, over 40 years later, consumers all over the world still associate Juan Valdez with 100% quality coffee.

The seventies brought visionary Jerry Baldwin, one of the founders of Starbucks, who continues to be a dedicated innovator with Peet's. In New York, Donald Schoenholt, Gillies, one of the SCAA founders, provided insights for our future growth through his well-articulated articles and outspoken participation ever since. In Norfolk, Virginia, J. Gil Brockenbrough, Jr. (now retired) created First Colony Coffee & Tea, which offered not only specialty coffees, but carried a line of fine teas, accessories and specialty foods bought by upscale department stores all over the U.S. Joanne and Julian Shaw, who created one of the first retail chains, The Coffee Beanery, are continuing to change retail formats and products that conform to customer demands. Erna Knutsen of Knutsen Importers was selling and educating roasters on quality coffees. She still is today.

The eighties brought quality coffee organizations to the forefront, including the Coffee Development Group and the Specialty Coffee Association of America. Thanksgiving Coffee, Frontier and Equal Exchange became the companies that pioneered organic coffee. Barnies was a leader in flavored coffees.

The nineties introduced us to social issues with programs like Coffee Kids that inspired the industry's work for social issues in growing countries. Estate coffees like Cafe Britt, LaMinita Tarrazu, and Jamaican Wallenford Estate gave consumers a "brand" to request.

Now, we're in the 21st century. Who are the new innovators? Marketing partnerships?...the country of origin associations?...a trade organization?...a coffee company?...a governmental or non-governmental organization?... environmental agronomists? A new chapter is yet to be written in the mysterious and intriguing coffee story.

Communicating the benefits of a quality product begins on the farm. The industry is gaining momentum in that direction, as marketing partners are developed between governmental and non-governmental organizations and the farming communities. Activities of partners are being communicated through consumer campaigns, many at the grass roots level. A few examples include Starbucks, who is working with Conservation International; Seattle's Best Coffee and their Water Keepers campaign, with former Senator Joe Kennedy as spokesperson; and Green Mountain with their line of stewardship coffees and promotion with the National Wildlife Federation. Counter Culture provides retailers with posters of migratory birds, which is an extension of their effort to educate consumers on protecting habitats that provide sanctuary to migratory birds. The Natural Step (see sidebar) is working through coffee and non-coffee corporations and organizations to teach sustainability on a global scale. Home Depot, the home improvement company , is one active participant in this effort.

With the emphasis on protecting the environment by employing a safer and more holistic approach, perhaps consumers are now ready to understand the message of paying a higher premium for quality coffees. And within this message, the comparison to wine might finally be heard and accepted.

During the recent coffee conference in Monte Carlo, a news release from Reuters quoted Alf Kramer, founder of the SCAE (Specialty Coffee Association of Europe) as stating that the specialty coffee movement must learn to think like the wine industry. "Some producing countries realize that, and are implementing that thought process," said Kramer, referring to the wine analogy. He continued, "consumers are now realizing the coffee is not just a standardized, industrial product, but a pleasure product and, like wine, has a personality. Countries such as Guatemala and Costa Rica have aggressive marketing campaigns for their coffee brands. Costa Rica has started to develop 'certified' specialty coffees, which aim to pinpoint and group together coffees from regions that share similar growing conditions."

The coffee industry has been comparing estate coffees to wine for years, but as an organization, has not garnered the acceptance from consumers. With the exception of barista training, there has been little consumer training about how quality is farmed into growing finer coffee beans. In the field of education, we can learn from the wine industry. Atlanta-based Anita LaRaia, wine consultant and founder of The Wine School, an educational wine course, emphasizes teaching consumers how to taste quality. She has spent over 25 years educating consumers about taste characteristics and the nuances found in the best wines. "Fine wines taste better; it does make a difference where and how grapes are grown. Better-grown grapes not only produce a better taste, but are healthier, with no pesticide residues, chemical fertilizers or contaminant from poor storage, etc.," she said.

A wine and coffee expert, Ophelia Santos, owner of Atlanta's Vino and Il Centro (which recently closed) restaurants, says it actually took many years for the wine industry to develop their consumer message. "Ten or fifteen years ago, when California wines sold for $15-$20 a bottle, there would have been a lot of resistance to a $50 bottle of estate wine," said Santos. "When the high-end wine producers, most notably, Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschilde, focused on getting their wines on restaurant wine lists, a lot of people sprang for the $10-$12 glass of wine, just to taste it. Their names, of course, helped sell the product, too," she added. On the topic of appellations for the coffee industry, Santos said that while important in Europe, they have still remained, for the most part, confusing for consumers in the U.S. Essentially, she elaborated, California and the New World producers such as Australia, New Zealand, South African and Latin America, focused their marketing around the varietal, a s opposed to the Old World's focus on the actual origin of the grapes. To this day, it is easier to sell California Chardonnay or even Australian Chardonnay than white Burgundy. They are all made from the same grape, but the public recognizes varietal a lot more easily than associating varietal with a particular appellation.

Smaller coffee companies without a large promotional budget, like Counter Culture, educate chefs of fine restaurants about their coffee. "We focus on high-end restaurants and international hotels with Michelin ratings," said Houk of Counter Culture. "Many restaurants that sell our coffees are James Beard winners," he said. When you offer a brand on the menu of an upscale restaurant, the consumer, having enjoyed the dining experience, will ask for it at the retail level.

When starting Counter Culture, in 1995, Houk, an avid bird-watcher, had a clear vision of his company mission-maintaining the habitats of migratory birds. This objective has led to marketing partnerships all along the migratory bird routes from Mexico to Peru. Counter Culture is also involved in a project with the National Fish and Wildlife Federation.

So, in the final analysis, where is our industry on the issue of sustainability? Right on target. Each year we gather momentum, and with it comes innovation and gained knowledge. Marketing partners, if not the main innovators for achieving sustainability in the 21st century, are indeed the pioneers. Quality is our goal. Methods for creating cup quality begin with teaching sustainability, not just at the farm level, but within every niche of society. We can learn marketing communications techniques from the wine industry. We have learned that consumers need to taste quality to understand and accept it. Sustainability is not just about coffee. It's about healthy living and rebuilding a sustainable environment for future centuries.

Suzanne J. Brown is a senior consultant with Hope-Beckham public relations in Atlanta, Georgia.


Sustainability experts agree that global sustain ability cannot be achieved unless human needs are met worldwide. This crucial piece of the sustainability puzzle--equity--was the focus of the annual conference of The Natural Step at the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia, on October 6-8. After well-received presentations at the San Francisco, California, SCAA conference, The Natural Step drew several coffee industry representatives to participate in its own forum on social responsibility in business.

Among the coffee companies in attendance were representatives from Batdorf & Bronson, Starbucks, Partners Coffee and Cafe Campesino. Transfair USA was invited to represent Fair Trade Certification as a new method for promoting equitable trade partnerships in a special breakout session. Starbucks participated in a panel discussion on corporate partnerships with NGOs, with partner Conservation International.

Of the TNS framework, Jean Pupkey, vice president and general manager of Batdorf & Bronson, said, "The combination of science, technology and the caring barista under one umbrella is something we should all be delighted to have. We have been using the TNS model as a way of framing what we do, and we went to the conference to deepen our understanding of the TNS framework. The TNS model makes us think in lifetimes, not in quick fixes, for sustainability."

Plenary presentations included corporations such as McDonalds, Nike and Interface, which have used the Natural Step framework in their paths toward sustainability. Other presentations looked at the culture of consumerism and idea's for moving beyond pure consumption to more sustainable behaviors.

The 400 participants at the conference enjoyed Fair Trade Certified and Organic Certified donated by Bill Harris of Cafe Campesino. Specialty coffee was mentioned in several open discussion forums as an industry looking to transform itself in the new Millenium. Fair trade was highlighted, as a key opportunity to achieve equity in the coffee trade and other global industries.

(Kimberly Easson)
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Title Annotation:marketing and consumer education within specialty coffee industry
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Geographic Code:00WOR
Date:Dec 20, 2000
Previous Article:2000 PEOPLE OF THE YEAR.
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