I see it, I hear it, I smell it. It’s everywhere.
7 a.m. hits and the world pours itself a mug of the potent wake-up fuel. They dress it with sweeteners and creamers of all shapes and sizes, while the purists keep it black in their own archetypal prerogative. The oddballs throw it on ice, and the edgy ones toss in a splash of spirits.
The contemporary coffee industry has the American public in a chokehold of brand loyalty rivaled only by national sports allegiances. Simply put, people love their coffee, and they’re quite apt to boast this more often than not. But taste aside, where does this strong sense of product devotion come from?
Image courtesy of waferboard
Origins and family matters
The cuppa’ joe has been a staple of American culture since the infamous Boston Tea Party. The mass deviation from English tea drinking to the coffee alternative was viewed as a patriotic responsibility. The market later exploded during the prohibition movement of the 1920s, as coffee became a popular alternative to social alcohol consumption.
It was reinforced again by troops returning from WWII who had grown accustomed to instant coffee rations in wartime. This renewed demand led to the first “coffee breaks” in the American workplace, becoming fully realized through assertive promotional efforts by the Pan-American Coffee Bureau in 1952.
But going beyond the historical foundation of coffee’s ascension, we need to consider the marketing aspects of this viral morning beverage and how it has transformed our relationship with the drink.
In the 1960s, Folgers television advertisements often depicted scenes of housewives failing to please their husbands with run-of-the-mill homebrewed coffee. They proceed by receiving words of wisdom from a friendly (and commonly exotically-accented) neighbor or grocer, who instructs them that mountain grown coffee is the most robust alternative that’s sure to please their men.
Folgers successfully used the “mountain-grown” ploy to propel their brand up the ladder of leading coffee producers in the 1960s. It’s a little piece of genius that’s still sported on their labels today.
Images courtesy of Folgers
But extraneous (albeit successful) ploys aside, the big point is that some of the earliest advertisements were centered on family matters, and the socially-enforced priority of married women of the time was to please their men.
New approaches to the family-based marketing scheme appeared in the 80s. This Folger’s Christmas commercial became a holiday icon and aired for years after its initial release in 1988.
The working man’s fuel
This era also began to heavily feature coffee as the working person’s beverage of choice, and mainstream marketing reflected that. Brands established their product not only as a familial comfort, but the fuel that drove the blue collar worker and yuppie alike.
Maxwell House’s “coffee made our way” campaign depicted a variety of professionals getting their java fix in amidst their daily labors. From construction workers to painters and a policewoman, the upbeat 80s-era montage characterized coffee drinkers as hard-working people. You know, people like you and I.
This advertisement embodies the modern coffee-consumer’s zeitgeist to a T: “It’s the way we start the morning, the way we close a deal, the way we share a secret, the way we end a meal.” According to the big brands, their brew is there to accompany us in the most trying and personal situations, with an emphasis on its necessity throughout our work day. And we’ve learned to oblige them wholeheartedly.
Just about every coffee brand I can think of has created a similar association with the working person, but several methods have proven exceptionally tactful. Folgers produced a series of customized jingles that gleefully portrayed the mornings of several performance artists, including a dancer and a fiddler. The first thing that these creative young women do in the morning is sip their coffee, and this gives them the means to execute their respective talents.
Starbucks followed an equally-uplifting approach with comedic zest through their popular Doubleshot marketing campaign back in 2004. In the headlining ad, a young man named Glen gulps down a can of espresso and inadvertently summons 80s rock band Survivor. They proceed to play a re-dubbed version of Eye of the Tiger to motivate Glen and reinforce his impending workday triumphs.
But it’s Eight O’ Clock Coffee’s TV spot that truly reflects the contemporary consumer’s perceived relationship with coffee.
This advertisement illustrates two major concepts. First, they effectively capitalize on the groggy early bird image to sculpt a convincing need for their product. The individual is portrayed as a lethargic, discombobulated and generally worthless lump before they get their coffee. The character is so pathetic and dysfunctional that she can’t even pour coffee grounds into a filter without missing.
This blasé attitude portrayed by Eight O’ Clock Coffee’s awakening female is a psychologically-imbued excuse for apathy that many young people of our time embrace. But as long as they get their coffee they’ll be able to function properly.
Secondly, their scenario is supplemented by the unveiled role of a professional athlete as our not-so-morning-friendly character.
It’s the accepted link between successful people and coffee that has contributed in large part to society’s widespread enthusiasm for it. What began as a byproduct of advertising has created a chain reaction of young adults who follow suit with their older peers and colleagues: pick up the coffee mug and you’ll become a more productive and valued person.
Embraced by the masses
And boy, do they love to talk about it.
I probably don’t have to tell you how often the subject pops up in the world of social media. Here’s a quick compilation of tweets about coffee that I slapped together. It wasn’t difficult to sift through the promotions and find genuine, casual conversation concerning the drink.
People young and old, in and out of the workplace take a curious amount of pride in their coffee, and it’s not hard to tell. Folks are so vocal that phrases such as “fueled by coffee” or “caffeinates often” are now common sights in profiles and bio lines.
Not to mention the photos. Nearly 3.5 million photos on Instagram alone possess the Starbucks tag (just short of the coffee tag’s 3.7 million).
The uproarious chatter that Starbucks has generated can also be attributed to their keen efforts in social media marketing. They’ve run a variety of contests in the past in which they encourage users to promote their products over Facebook and Twitter for incentives; something that has undoubtedly jumpstarted the flood of discourse.
Coffee conversation and its rise in social media have inherently reinforced brand loyalties. There’s nothing like an opportunity for debate to get people defending their favorite brands. Spirited personal endorsements from average users are the results that big brands hope for, and it’s working out remarkably well for them.
Personal disclaimer: don’t hate me
Coffee marketing has turned us into promotional monsters. And despite what you might think of my personal annoyance with the proliferation of mundane coffee conversation, I do enjoy the beverage myself (I’m one of the aforementioned iced-coffee oddballs). In some ways I am a hypocrite to my cynicism, but I am fascinated by the origins of our collective coffee infatuation as a society.
So go ahead, beat the first amendment to death with your proclamations of love for the coffee you’re sipping on. Just realize that clever marketing initiatives have made you what you are: a cog in the global java market’s PR machine.