We know we know coffee, and we think we know our customers, but for the past several years, the Specialty Coffee Association has been determined to parse the complicated relationship that consumers have with the specialty coffee industry. These continuing efforts aim not only to better understand our current share of the market, but also where the largest opportunities for growth lie among self-identified “coffee lovers” who are valuable potential converts to the next level of engagement with what we understand as true “specialty”.
The research was initiated with a man- in-the-street experiment in 2011, when a camera crew interviewed people holding coffee cups with one seemingly simple question: “What does specialty coffee mean to you?” The incredible diversity of responses sparked a more in-depth investigation, exploring the responses of six focus groups in Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon, and even analyzing the groups’ expression of their relationship with coffee through the creation of collages. The results were clear on at least one thing — coffee lovers feel a deep emotional connection to the drink and to their individual culture of coffee — but raised many more questions about the effectiveness of specialty coffee marketing and the penetration of new or fringe markets by the most commonly utilized and popular messages within the industry.
It’s clear that the messages, products, and experiences which appeal to Supers don’t resonate with Adopters — the group with the greatest potential for growth as specialty consumers, and arguably where the majority of the opportunity lies for retailers.
In 2016, the Specialty Coffee Association commissioned the first quantitative study of self-identified coffee consumers by hiring a third-party research company (Marketing General Inc.) to conduct an internet-based survey of 250 respondents, as well as to compile and analyze the data for use by those in the specialty coffee sector. By determining consumer preferences, behaviors, motivating factors, and specific demographic information, the report aims to shine a light on the areas where specialty coffee has the greatest potential for growth, especially through more effective capturing of those customers who appear to be on the cusp of becoming more engaged with this segment of the global coffee business.
Through a series of questions aimed at current consumer practices, the researchers classified respondents into two primary categories: Specialty Adopters and Super Specialty Consumers. While both identified themselves as coffee lovers, true distinction between the groups is slightly complicated, and does not merely come down to interest and engagement with the more nuanced elements of coffee connoisseurship. Age, income, drinking habits inside and outside of the home, taste preferences, and familiarity with coffee “jargon” all contribute to marking a respondent as an “Adopter” or a “Super”, but of course we all know that people, like coffees themselves, are complex beings, and may display behavior and preferences that straddle the line between market segments.
That being said, the results of the study are fascinating, and not only eye- opening, but potentially market-opening as well: By peering into people’s cups, we are able to understand where our marketing falls short, which products and experiences resonate with consumers and which miss the mark, and make informed strategies to actively increase the appeal of our brands and our beverages in order to effectively boost the specialty coffee signal.
Perhaps the most striking elements of the data are where it’s made clear what messages, products, and experiences which appeal to Supers don’t resonate with Adopters — the group with the greatest potential for growth as specialty consumers, and arguably where the majority of the opportunity lies for retailers. The groups’ similarities provide initial clues — e.g. both groups strongly prefer to drink coffee at breakfast or during the morning; both groups rank flavor, roast level, and coffee origin as the most important factors influencing purchases — but their differences are where the real detective work happens.
For instance, while both report a greater likelihood to drink coffee at home than in a café or coffee shop because they prefer to “make it exactly how I want it,” 67% of the Adopters also expressed preference for “the ambiance of being at home”, as opposed to 26% of Supers. Does this speak to the comfort of a kitchen, or to discomfort in the coffee shop? Alongside this data is more context-providing information about where consumers do visit when they head to the café: While both Adopters (67%) and Supers (46%) regularly visit large national chains like Starbucks, Peet’s Coffee or Caribou Coffee, Adopters are more likely to patronize a “local coffee shop known for being warm and friendly” (25%) than one with a reputation for being high-end and quality focused (5%).
Adopters are also less likely to order more than one drink per visit to a café, as opposed to the two drinks a Super averages. Does the Adopters’ interest in ice-blended coffee drinks, which are typically richer and more expensive than brewed coffee or espresso-based milk drinks, lead them to buy fewer, and is there an opportunity to be found there?
Another telling response is in Adopters’ and Supers’ interest in “secondary aspects” of the coffee itself, such as origin specifics and certifications. For both groups, flavor is significantly more important than details such as farm identification and processing, but Adopters respond more positively to description of flavor combinations and expectations (60%) than Supers do (46%).
What the data captured here is able to provide is the view from 30,000 feet that’s difficult, if not impossible, to glean from the up-close but limited conversations we have across the counter or at the threshold of our cafés, as we try to convince new customers to take that first step inside toward the queue. How do we marry our ideals of quality, price, and experience in a way that enhances the emotional connection consumers long to have with their coffee?
The reach of this research is beyond what most retailers are capable of compiling, and by closely studying these data points and comparing them with our individual experiences in the industry, we have a better chance of connecting the dots between new segments of the consumer population and our growing specialty coffee businesses — since, after all, more people drinking better coffee means more better coffee for people to drink.
To learn more about the research and to order a copy of the report, please visit sca.coffee/consumerresearch
Erin Meister is the content specialist at Cafe Imports.