March 31, 2017

Wake up and smell the speciality coffee: introducing strategy to a challenger segment of the coffee industry

Since 2007, speciality coffee has been a booming business in the UK –  its influence can be seen in almost every larger chain adopting ‘artisen-esque’ products (and even imitating independent coffee shop interiors). The fact that speciality coffee is a trend is nothing new, currently taking a 13% share in the coffee market and set to grow at 13% (compared to just 10% for non-speciality coffee). Nevertheless, speciality coffee suffers from a perception problem: failing to land its value at a consumer level (“isn’t all coffee more or less the same?”). Assembly Coffee explained some of the issues surrounding the sector, and how it’s tackling those head-on.

Speciality coffee can sound daunting and pretentious to the uninitiated, but in fact it’s a technical term which refers to coffee beans of a certain grade, scoring over 80 on a 100-point scale defined by the Speciality Coffee Association of America (SCAA). Such coffee typically costs around 6-12 times that of lower-grade coffee, with this higher price reflecting the small batches of speciality beans, and in turn the cost of roasting these small batches. To roast large batches of beans, in large chain coffee shops for example, the only way to ensure an even roast is to overcook them. All this means that there is a difference between that pricey brew and, say, a McCafe americano, and yet the sector does a pretty bad job of communicating this. In fact, large coffee chains take advantage of the perception that speciality coffee is a myth – just take McCafe’s latest campaign for example, which satirises the independent coffee scene.


Some companies are tackling the lack of strategy and insight in speciality coffee – Assembly coffee (a roaster and distributor) being one such company. Whilst independent coffee shops and roasters have become more focused on flavour differentiation, Assembly coffee realised that this only served to remove them from their customer, who typically has much less expertise than this. To tackle this increasing gap, Assembly has begun to collaborate with the coffee shops they supply to gain consumer insight – with their goal to develop forward-thinking approaches to cafe culture.

They’ve established a knowledge curve amongst coffee consumers – from those who drink it functionally to those who are obsessed with different flavour profiles. Since most people fall somewhere in the middle or lower end of the curve, describing coffee in terms of flavour can often miss the mark (who really has a sensory reference for ‘rosehip’ anyway?) – although they are meaningful to coffee professionals. So, if describing coffee with flavour descriptors can push potential consumers away, what’s the best way to communicate taste to the widest possible audience? They’ve done away with written coffee descriptions altogether, and instead launched ‘the colour project’ which relays taste with colourful illustrations, aiming to be a more suitable format for the largest part of their audience. They’re seeing success with this initiative, although it’s still fairly new.

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Ideas such as these could be the step-change speciality coffee needs to connect with its audience – and given the fact that the number of independent coffee shops in the UK is set to double by 2020 (from 1,400 to 2,800), could prove instrumental in overcoming speciality coffee’s perception problem.

Many thanks to the Open Your Mind team at GroupThink for organising the event.

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Team Curious

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