February 12, 2021

A brief history of marketing in the coffee sector


Coffee consumption has come a long way since the 15th century. Today, approximately 90% of North American adults drink a coffee-based beverage every day. Espresso is the second most consumed beverage in Italy (after water).

This raises a number of questions, but one in particular: just how has the global coffee market grown so dramatically? Well, while there’s no single perfect answer, there is no doubt that marketing has played a key role in this journey.

Developments and changes in print, advertising, and media technology have all played a part in bringing coffee into our lives. They have also undoubtedly shaped how we consume it.

To follow the journey of coffee marketing, I spoke to two coffee historians, Mark Pendergrast and Jonathan Morris. They guided me from its beginnings in Africa and the Middle East to the global presence it enjoys today. Read on to learn more about what they said.

You may also like our brief history of coffee consumption.

Coffee’s early beginnings

While many people associate the beginning of marketing in coffee with its “first wave” and mass commercialisation, Mark Pendergrast tells me that it actually started much earlier than that.

Mark is a scholar and author; his book Uncommon Grounds: A History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World takes an in-depth look at the history of coffee marketing, among other things.

“The ‘first wave’ of marketing would [have] been local to Ethiopia and Yemen, the first two places [where] arabica coffee was cultivated,” Mark tells me. “There were coffeehouses across the Arab world [between] 1500 and 1650.”

As colonialism spread, coffee travelled from Africa and the Middle East to North America and Europe in the 1600s. The first known printed advertisement for coffee was published in 1652 by Pasqua Rosée, who opened one of the first coffeehouses in London. 

Throughout the second half of the 17th century, coffee became a luxury product in Europe. It was associated with status and wealth among the upper classes, as only the affluent could afford it.

At this time, handbills (small printed advertisements distributed by hand) were used to advertise coffee. They described in basic terms how coffee should be prepared, and the supposed health benefits of consumption.

Throughout the 1700s, coffee continued to be depicted as an “exotic” product, as it originated from outside Europe. This meant it was considered to be a rare, expensive luxury, only for the wealthy.

However, in the 1820s, prices for coffee beans reached a record low, which made it more accessible across the continent. Jonathan Morris is a Research Professor in History at the University of Hertfordshire in the UK. His book, Coffee: A Global History, provides a keen insight into coffee’s journey through history.

Jonathan says: “Coffee was sold loose in colonial stores that specialised in imported grocery products; during the 19th century, some of these began to operate shop roasting equipment.

“It was from these kinds of stores that many of Europe’s most famous roasters emerged: Julius Meinl opened a colonial goods store in Vienna in 1862, and Luigi Lavazza in Turin in 1895.”

Early European roasters advertised their products as being cheaper and easier than buying green beans and roasting over a fire at home. This was how many consumers prepared their coffee at the time.

This simple change permanently altered the coffee sector. It set a standard from the late 19th century onwards, as consumers now expected their coffee to be roasted at the point of purchase.

Coffee marketing in the early & mid-20th century

To improve the sales of roasted and ground coffee in the US, more nuanced and complex marketing campaigns started to emerge in the early 20th century.

One particular example saw Alexander Sheppard & Sons create the “Morning Sip” blend, advertised in 1916 as “pure, sweet and wholesome” thanks to the removal of the coffee’s “overcoat”.

Explaining the process and how it was linked to the “improved” taste of the product created a new kind of consumer impression. This was another major change in coffee marketing: a focus on how roasters could supposedly “add” quality, and therefore, value.

By 1917, Morning Sip had become so successful that Sheppard & Sons had constructed a new distribution centre to keep up with demand. 

Other major roasters soon tried to mirror this success. In 1920, it was estimated that large US coffee roasters spent a staggering US $3 million (equivalent to more than US $39 million today) on marketing throughout the course of the year.

In 1924, Maxwell House declared a marketing budget of more than US $275,000 (equivalent to US $4,000,000 today). It only took it a matter of years to become one of the US’ most popular coffee companies.

“The next [phase] took advantage of radio and billboards along roads in the 1920s to 1940s, with shows such as the The Maxwell House Show Boat, where the coffee was sold by the actors,” Mark explains.

The Maxwell House Show Boat was the most popular variety radio show in the entire United States from 1933 to 1935. Its success during this period saw Maxwell House sales increase by around 85%.

How did marketing change towards the end of the 20th century?

After the end of the Second World War, companies selling instant coffee in particular set out to generate more brand recognition among the general public. 

Instant coffee can be traced back to the early 1900s, when a Japanese chemist, Satori Kato, created a “dried coffee extract”. This was an early prototype of the instant coffee we know today. It soon became popular with the US military and renowned for providing a convenient “burst” of energy.

Through the 20th century, this convenience started to become a focal point for instant coffee marketing. One brand in particular, George Washington’s Instant Coffee, printed a popular advert in 1945 using the slogan “no coffee pot, no grounds, no waste”. This showed that the sector was keen to capitalise on something that has remained high on the agenda since: convenience.

“Advertisers decisively moved the focus from the origins of the coffee to its utility to the consumer,” Jonathan explains. “This marketing worked by gaslighting customers, usually women, about their lack of coffee knowledge, while promising to solve the problem through the reliability of the blend.”

Through the late 1940s and early 1950s, advertising changed across the United States and other major consuming markets with the invention of the television. It’s estimated that in 1946, there were some 6,000 televisions in households across America; by 1951, this number had increased to 12 million.

Television advertising gave coffee brands the power to deliver marketing campaigns straight into the consumer’s home. During the 1950s and 1960s, household coffee marketing became more targeted towards women, especially in the US. Many adverts claimed that good coffee was necessary to “please their husbands”.

“In the 1970s, the focus shifted more to the consumer,” Jonathan says. “[Within this, we saw] the use of celebrity endorsements reflecting the way that coffee had become incorporated into daily life.”

Perhaps the best example of this came in 1972 with “Mr. Coffee”, an early electrical at-home coffee brewer. Famous baseball player Joe DiMaggio was the spokesperson for the machine, and in 1983, he was seen on TV brewing coffee with it.

This signalled another key change from the adverts of the 1950s and 1960s: in just a few years, coffee brewing had become more acceptable as a “masculine” activity, one associated with professional sportspeople. 

Jonathan tells me that the approach changed again in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “The courtship of the Nescafé Gold Blend couple provided British TV watchers, between 1987 and 1993, with a more positive message about the role of coffee in [romantic] relationships,” he says. “However, these ads offered little information to the customer about their coffee.” 

The luxury lifestyle: Nespresso and beyond

In the late 20th century, everything changed once again. As Nespresso became more popular, coffee was increasingly marketed as a “lifestyle” product, a luxury for the elite.

This all started in 1988 when Jean-Paul Gaillard, formerly of tobacco company Philip Morris, joined Nespresso. Gaillard was inspired by the wine industry to market Nespresso’s capsules as a “luxury” item, despite the fact that they were reasonably affordable for most consumers. He also reduced the prices of Nespresso capsule machines, and agreed that they could be sold in a greater number of stores.

Within a few years, he also developed Club Nespresso to give the brand a feeling of exclusivity, despite the fact that membership was free as soon as you purchased a machine or capsules.

It didn’t matter, though; this “membership” communicated a feeling to consumers that Nespresso products were a key part of a more luxurious or exclusive way of life. 

Nespresso then launched its online platform in 1998. The brand’s first physical location – today known as a “Nespresso boutique” – opened in 2000. But it was their presence on TV that helped them to grow in the 2000s and beyond.

In the mid-2000s, Nespresso hired US actor George Clooney as the face of the brand. He starred in his first advertisement in 2006. Clooney represented everything that Nespresso wanted to communicate about Nespresso: elegance, charm, and a tongue-in-cheek sense of humour.

Coffee shop chains

However, marketing didn’t just change for home consumers throughout this time. Beyond the home, the idea of the coffee chain became redefined in the late 20th century, fundamentally changing the centuries-old concept of the coffeehouse.

Take Starbucks, for example. The brand opened its first store in 1971. In 1987, Howard Schultz purchased the company for US $3.8 million. Just a few years later, the brand was opening a new location every single day.

Starbucks’ aggressive policy of expansion has continued to this day; but how is that linked to marketing?

“When Howard Schultz took over Starbucks, he pioneered the marketing of espresso-based drinks in the coffeehouse,” Mark says. “Much of their marketing was presence and word of mouth [in the beginning]; Starbucks did not pay for advertising for quite a few years.”

For chains like Starbucks, the instant recognition and the consistent brand identity set them apart from independents. It marked a new development in out-of-home coffee marketing. 

“The cookie cutter stores which conformed to a basic set of interior designs were themselves key to representing the promises that the brand was intended to deliver,” Jonathan says. “Within these, the same items of corporate communications appeared.

“Usually, they tried to build up a basic origin story about the brand that suggested some form of authenticity and authority. In the UK, for instance, Costa Coffee was ‘Italian about coffee’… its outlets often featured photos of the Costa brothers, landscapes of Italy, and so on.”

Additionally, the presentation of the coffee shop as a “third place” (somewhere between work and home where consumers could study, read, or socialise) became integral in coffee shop marketing through the late 1990s and into the early 21st century.

What will coffee marketing look like in the future?

Today, the third wave of coffee is marked by a number of key traits. These include a greater appreciation for the skill and craft of the brewer or barista, a focus on sustainability and ethical sourcing practices, and wider transparency and traceability across the supply chain.

In recent years, each of these traits has come to be used by coffee brands as a way of communicating information that will resonate with the consumer. Modern consumers (especially younger demographics) are more passionate about sustainability and social responsibility than they ever have been.

“Kenco’s Coffee Versus Gangs initiative, for instance, saw 20 young Hondurans offered the chance to train for careers in coffee,” Jonathan tells me. “This was the centre of an advertising campaign that apparently contributed to a 52% increase in sales during the period [when] it first aired in 2014.”

Even Nespresso’s “luxury” messaging is changing. While 2006 saw them bring in George Clooney to market their products as an elegant and exclusive lifestyle, today’s coffee sector is different. The brand is starting to address issues with capsule waste and discuss their ethical sourcing practices. Recent Nespresso advertisements show farmers in coffee producing countries, highlighting the most vulnerable actors in the supply chain.

“The internet has again made it possible to tell much more effective stories about origin,” Jonathan explains. “I don’t just mean a few tasting notes; [instead we’re seeing] videos of the landscapes, farmers, and processing methods that produced a particular coffee.” 

Additionally, brands aren’t just changing what they communicate, but also how they communicate. Social media is already a huge tool for marketing professionals; it is only set to become even more important in the coffee sector. 

Cafés and roasters now have access to a vast digital space that only continues to grow. However, this presents its own challenge. Coffee brands now only have seconds to sell themselves before consumers scroll on.

Jonathan says: “The rise of Instagram has created a whole new component to marketing. [Today], one must design interiors and products that will ‘pop’ on a feed.

“What has really changed for the third wave are the digital marketing environment and the possibilities that this offers,” he adds. “Social media can spread the fame of a [brand] at very little cost, roasters can connect with customers online, and coffee influencers have become much more important.”

Moving forward, marketing seems set to develop with a closer focus on the journey from seed to cup in mind. “Spotting and exploiting new pathways to communicate with customers in ways that are consistent with brand values will result in successful outcomes in future coffee marketing strategy,” Jonathan concludes.

Marketing in the coffee sector has had a long complex journey, but this story is far from over. As technology and popular culture continue to change and shape consumer demand, we will undoubtedly see all-new strategies and marketing methods emerge.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on roasting for filter and espresso.

Photo credits: Tasmin Grant, Don O’Brien, Mika Yasuda, Jun Seita, Mark, David Megginson, Matthew Paul Argall

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