October 7, 2021

How has digital marketing evolved in the coffee industry?


Marketing has been key to the growth of the coffee industry over the years. From the first Middle Eastern coffee houses in the 1500s to specialty cafés across the globe, it has been an integral part of coffee’s journey and growth. 

In today’s technology-focused world, digital marketing is essential for any successful coffee business. In 2017, a study found that the majority of Americans checked their mobile devices at least every 12 minutes. This shows that digital is a huge opportunity for brands – as long as they can leverage it effectively.

However, just because digital marketing is all-encompassing doesn’t mean it’s easy. There are specific ways in which businesses should operate to optimise their digital presence. To learn more, I spoke to three digital marketing professionals working in the coffee sector. Read on to find out what they said.

You may also like our article on the history of marketing in the coffee sector.

A quick history of pre-digital marketing

To understand the significance of modern digital marketing, it’s important to first look back to where it started.

The initial forms of marketing were printed advertisements. Small printed advertisements, known as handbills, were common in the 1700s, when coffee was considered a “luxury” product for wealthier consumers.

Rather than being used for branding, handbills informed coffee drinkers about how to roast and brew beans. However, marketing shifted in the late 1800s when roasteries began to open throughout Europe.

This was when consumer demand changed, and people expected coffee to be roasted for them, rather than doing it themselves. Convenience was becoming more of an important factor. Even today, it continues to be heavily prevalent in digital marketing for coffee.

Branding started to become integral in marketing in the early 1900s. Popular US coffee brand Maxwell House spent the modern equivalent of US $4 million on marketing in 1924. Their campaigns, along with the sponsored TV show “The Maxwell House Show Boat”, caused sales to increase by 85% in just a few years.

From the 1950s onwards, coffee brands used television to market coffee to a wider audience. For example, in 1983, the home coffee brewer brand Mr. Coffee included famous US baseball player Joe DiMaggio in its marketing campaign.

The convenience of the home appliance was a central focus of the branding, but this was balanced with the appearance of a well-known public figure. This is not unlike using celebrities or even coffee influencers in modern digital marketing.

Companies such as Nespresso followed in these footsteps, using actor George Clooney in its TV adverts from 2006 onwards. Clooney helped to personify the Nespresso brand with a luxurious yet playful feel. More recently, Brad Pitt joined automatic espresso machine manufacturer De’Longhi as a brand ambassador.

However, while convenience, personification, and high-end branding are still important for coffee companies marketing products, things have certainly changed.

What is digital marketing?

Jennifer Yeatts is Director of Coffee for Higher Grounds Trading Co. – a B-Corp certified roaster in Michigan.

“Everyone is on the internet now,” she says. “If you want to connect with consumers with a broad reach, your business needs to be out there digitally.”

Digital marketing is a broad umbrella, and it covers a number of different channels. Perhaps the most prominent are social media, content writing, and search engine optimisation (SEO).

This is because of the sheer scale of the digital audience: to date, Facebook has over 2.7 billion active users, while over 50,000 searches are carried out on Google every second.

“In the coffee industry, companies who want to grow have learned to keep up with that trend and optimise [their] marketing strategies for an increasingly virtual world,” Jennifer says.

For example, Starbucks launched its social media platforms in 2008. It first focused on making posts that were “extensions” of its physical stores. The brand’s imagery was warm and inviting, using specific colour palettes, but always kept the logo as the focus of the post.

However, Starbucks adapted once again in 2011 with the launch of a dedicated app. Seven years on, in 2018, it was reported that this had some 14.2 million active users in the US alone. 

And while the app was initially just a way to tie together Starbucks’ physical and digital presence, it has since become a key sales channel, generating some 23% of the brand’s revenue in the same year.

With that said, brands looking to launch or scale a digital marketing strategy in the coffee sector may have one key concern: competition.

Mark Zhou is the CEO and President of MTPak Coffee, a sustainable packaging company focused on the specialty coffee market. 

“While the internet has opened up a lot of opportunities for brands to have a voice, it also means that the market has become saturated with information,” he says. “There’s so much noise, it can be difficult to make sense of it all. How can you tell what’s genuine and what’s not?”

The importance of branded storytelling

While there are many sides to digital marketing, one of the most important aspects is showcasing a company’s story and voice. People should understand what a coffee brand stands for within a few seconds of visiting its social media channel or web page.

“We’re all trying to make our brand image synonymous with the best quality version of the product we sell,” Jennifer tells me. “When someone sees the Higher Grounds star logo, we want them to think, ‘exceptional coffee from a world of good friends’.

“It’s a tricky balance between wanting to tell our full authentic story and needing a recognisable symbol to do that work for us.”

According to the Journal of Consumer Psychology, brand authenticity is defined by four categories: continuity, credibility, integrity, and symbolism

Among other things, this means that people want to see brands consistently and honestly showcasing their commitment to social, environmental, and ethical practices – especially in the coffee sector, where this is a major sticking point.

These commitments are sometimes displayed through a practice known as “branded storytelling”. This is a type of content marketing where brands tell stories that broadcast and outline their values while still remaining inherently engaging. 

Often, these take the form of blog posts or articles on a brand’s website or social media channels.

Julio Guevera is COO of PDG Media: a digital marketing agency focused exclusively on the coffee industry. 

“Storytelling is important,” he says. “It means that businesses with purpose are noticed in a certain way. It helps them make real connections and improves audience engagement and loyalty.”

In the coffee industry, it’s becoming increasingly important that storytelling resonates with specific demographics. For example, US millennials and Gen Z consumers have a combined spending power of US $350 billion. They are also more than twice as likely to consume “gourmet” coffees than other, older generations.

A key part of this will be acknowledging the growing demand for sustainability among these demographics. Recent research from Hiroshima University found those aged between 18 and 30 were considerably more likely to value and pay more for sustainable products – including coffee.

MTPak Coffee produces biodegradable, compostable, and recyclable coffee bags. Mark tells me how authentic branded storytelling has helped the company to grow.

“In the first few years of MTPak Coffee, people hadn’t really heard of us. But over time, with great digital marketing, we’ve been able to win that trust and build a loyal customer base.

“If you want your digital marketing to be effective, you have to get consumers on side and show them that you’re authentic. If not, they’ll be wary of you and may not be confident buying your products or using your services.”

Developing accessible and informative content

Julio points out that digital marketing has shaped the way in which businesses and consumers engage with one another.

“‘Old’ marketing was all about one-way communication, basically the business shouting out what they do [or] represent. 

“The ‘new’ school of digital marketing and techniques like branded storytelling create an opportunity for discussions to involve the audience and the brand, if not other entities.”

In short: engaging and responding to your audience is more important now than it ever has been. For example, the simple practice of replying to user comments showcases an interest in consumer thoughts and feedback. 

Similarly, incorporating user-generated content, such as Instagram posts or reviews, can help to build trust. Research from the Nielsen Consumer Trust Index backs this up, showing that 92% of consumers are more inclined to trust organic, user-generated content than other forms of branding.

However, being informative is just as vital as being accessible and engaging. Great content should be search engine optimised to ensure it ranks well on web searches, and must also showcase brand knowledge and expertise.

“In every industry, there is a leading voice that everyone turns to for information, tips, and guidance,” Mark says. “But these brands haven’t reached that point by chance.

“They’re the leading voice because, over many months or years, they’ve published consistently well-written and well-researched articles that people know they can turn to.”

Coffee companies with a digital presence need to sell products and services to customers, but should also make sure they share valuable information at the same time. For instance, blog posts, how-to videos, and sponsored content can establish credibility while continuing to promote a brand.

“Whether we’re publishing brew guides, industry standards, origin stories, or roasting philosophies, we want readers to have open access and know they can trust our voice on the subject,” Jennifer explains.

However, she notes that it’s a balance of expertise and accessibility.

“It’s not just about being an expert; there are a lot of experts out there,” Jennifer says. “We want to share what we know openly and freely, not gatekeep or tout our expertise as a status symbol.”

How might digital marketing develop in the future?

The online world is still arguably young – as is the digital marketing sector. This means that it’s certainly subject to change for coffee brands and beyond.

“Mobile marketing is now something brands now can’t ignore,” Julio explains. “Coffee businesses of course have to keep paying closer attention to Google and how they rank there, but not only for text searches – maybe they need to also consider voice recognition, for instance.

“Owning your content will also be a huge leverage. This is especially important with channels like video, which has become massively prominent in recent years.”

Since 2012, the number of videos viewed on mobile phones has increased by 17 times. Global internet traffic from video alone is even expected to account for 82% of all consumer traffic – indicating a significant consumer preference for striking, engaging visual content.

“Content marketing will have to pay attention to user experience over the next decade,” Mark adds. “This means when users are reading a blog post, scrolling through social media feeds, listening to podcasts, receiving weekly newsletters, and so much more.”

In addition, analysing the popularity of certain channels can help a company to understand which platforms are most relevant or useful to them.

“Some platforms such as Facebook, for example, are becoming more of a paid advertising tool rather than a place where you have organic reach,” Julio says. “Conversely, newer platforms like TikTok are better for fast organic growth.”

Video-sharing social media platform TikTok amassed more than 6.89 million users in June 2020 alone, becoming the fastest growing social media app in the world. A presence there may prove to be ever more useful for coffee brands – especially for younger consumers.

However, Julio notes that consumers will ultimately continue to value authenticity.

“Within the next five to ten years, people will still want accurate and meaningful information,” he says. “More importantly, they want to separate which information is valuable to them, so they have it at their fingertips.”

Things can change quickly in digital marketing. Keeping up with new trends, engaging with your audience, and showcasing brand authenticity are essential to success.

Beyond that, working with digital marketing agencies like PDG Media can help a company identify its unique needs and effectively scale growth. In time, this can help brands get ahead of their competitors and enjoy continued success.

Looking for a digital marketing agency that truly knows coffee? Check out the PDG Media website here.

Photo credits: Higher Grounds Trading Co.

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