It is the life source of every office, most people can’t face the day without it, and 70 million cups of the stuff are consumed in the UK each day. Although we are branded as a nation of tea drinkers, us Brits are becoming more and more dependent on the bitter brown bean. Over the years coffee has taken the UK by storm, although it has been a staple for our neighbours in Continental Europe and beyond for centuries. So why has this happened? What has made coffee cool, and can tea ever hope to catch up? Today we’re looking at the marketing genius behind coffee’s success in the UK and beyond - from the initial pioneering campaigns that sparked its success to the unusual approaches being used to keep coffee relevant in the present day.
The rise of coffee in the UK in recent years has been astronomical. From the jar of instant coffee in the back of the kitchen cupboard to the most luxurious of lattes at a high-tech coffee shop, the drink has become ubiquitous. The craze began in the UK after the Second World War, when freeze-dried coffee granules became widely available for the first time. But coffee remained second to tea, and was widely marketed as an occasional treat to make at home, adding some variety to the quintessentially British tea break.
Coffee remained a largely domestic product in the UK well into the 1980s, when Nescafé launched one of the most iconic advertising campaigns of all time. The ongoing saga of the Gold Blend couple captured the attention of the nation, featuring a man and a woman sharing important moments over cups of the signature instant coffee. The final instalment, in which the pair finally got together after 6 years of will-they-won't-they adverts, was watched by 30 million Brits, and is regarded as one of the most successful and innovative marketing campaigns of all time. With this campaign, Nescafé marked coffee as romantic, youthful and cool, a product image which continues today, although instant coffee is maybe a little out of vogue these days, having been replaced by newer, cooler and more complex coffee drinks.
The role coffee plays in British life, however, has changed rapidly over the last 25 years. In the early 1990s many popular American shows like Seinfeld and Friends depicted cosmopolitan twenty-somethings sipping lattes in chic coffee shops. The success of these shows sparked the birth of ‘cafe culture’ in the UK, as people sought to emulate this lifestyle from across the pond. Brits began to see coffee as more than just an instant drink to have in front of the telly or while rushing to get ready in the mornings, it became a social activity, and cafés soon began adding lattes, cappuccinos, espressos and more to the mix in order to keep up with this new demand. Between 1993 and 1997, the number of coffee shops in the UK grew by an astounding 847 percent as savvy business owners capitalised on the new craze. This culminated in the rapid expansion of several coffee brands in the UK, such as Costa Coffee, Caffé Nero and Starbucks, and since then our love for coffee has only grown.
Although it may feel like these companies have been dominating our high streets forever, they are actually pretty new additions to the market - Starbucks famously opened its first UK store in 1998, and has since expanded to almost 800 locations nationwide. The ongoing success experienced by both coffee chains and independent coffee houses in the UK is startling, especially considering our national stereotype as avid tea drinkers. But actually, some people think it is our previous ambivalence towards non-instant coffee that made Britain the perfect market for coffee house culture. As Philip Wain, editor of London’s Best Coffee says, “we weren't a county that drank a lot of coffee before, unlike say Italy, the USA, Germany or Finland, so there wasn't a traditional ingrained coffee culture to overcome - in a way that has made it easier for speciality coffee to take hold here”.
But what does this mean for UK marketing? As many are relatively new brands, plenty of coffee chains and independent stores alike have managed to keep coffee relevant and interesting for the last two decades, despite initial concerns that Britain’s coffee-mania was only a phase. By capitalising on social media marketing and using innovative techniques such as experiential marketing, major players in the coffee game have stayed savvy and successfully kept customers interested. Loyalty cards in particular have made a huge difference in customer retention and acquisition for these brands, and some newer electronic systems allow companies to track their customers’ habits and tailor offers for them. On top of this, many companies create hype around seasonal releases of limited edition drinks - Starbucks in particular has capitalised brilliantly on seasonal products, as many say autumn truly begins when Pumpkin Spice Lattes become available at the coffee chain.
The nation’s newfound love of coffee has reached particularly spectacular heights in the last 5 years, especially among young people. Although young people are usually the first to champion new and exciting trends, this millennial love of cafe culture is also indicative of a major lifestyle shift in the UK. Young people are seeking new and unusual means of entertainment - according to recent studies at Marketing Week, “as a nation of flat white drinkers and foodies growing up in an experience economy, you’re as likely to see a British 20-something sipping a cold brew coffee and finding recipes on Instagram as you are drinking a pint down their local pub.” Alcohol sales in the UK are plummeting, as recent statistics from the Guardian indicate that 20% of 18-25 year olds in Britain are teetotal. As a result, companies are investing in experiential marketing and creating unique and bespoke experiences for their customers. Those who understand the power of alternative marketing are thriving, and coffee shops are capitalising on this success.
Coffee has definitely jumpstarted a whole new approach to marketing in the UK. What’s more, new trends like the Swedish concept of Fika have also helped to keep coffee relevant and marketable to a UK audience. The idea of a coffee break as being a social, sacred time away from one’s desk is appealing to younger generations and is proving a popular new trend in many workplaces and in leisure time too. As coffee culture in the UK is constantly adapting and evolving, consumers are showing no signs of curtailing their coffee consumption. By introducing variations on coffee products from overseas, such as the now omnipresent flat white (an Australian import originally), and adopting foreign attitudes to coffee, savvy retailers have benefited hugely off this once-untapped resource and will most likely continue to reap its rewards.