August 17, 2023

From NBA players to musicians: Is specialty coffee focusing too much on celebrity partnerships?


Like with many other industries, celebrity partnerships isn’t a new concept to the specialty coffee sector. Professional athletes, actors, and musicians, have endorsed, promoted, and marketed coffee brands and products as far back as the early 1970s.

At the same time, more and more celebrities and well known personalities have started to launch their own coffee brands or collaborate with specialty coffee companies. 

One example is the US National Basketball Association player Jimmy Butler, who launched BigFace Coffee in October 2021. The lifestyle brand sells a small selection of beans, as well as a wider range of coffee accessories and apparel. 

Since its launch almost two years ago, BigFace has collaborated with several different coffee companies. The most recent partnership is with coffee equipment manufacturer Fellow. The company is selling a variety of BigFace-branded kettles, scales, grinders, brewers, and more.

The collaboration has been successful so far, with some products already sold out. However, beyond generating value for both coffee brands and the celebrities in question, how do these partnerships benefit the wider specialty coffee industry? Moreover, is the sector starting to rely on them too much?

To find out more, I spoke to Jake Leonti, CEO of food and beverage consultancy and agency F&B Therapy. Read on for more of his insight.

You may also like our article on whether Blue Bottle’s collaboration with The Weeknd is good for specialty coffee.

Specialty coffee & celebrities: Why are these partnerships so successful?

There’s no denying the power that celebrities and well known public figures have in influencing consumer behaviour. In fact, a 2021 study found that people are willing to pay higher prices for food and beverages if they are endorsed by a recognisable and influential celebrity.

Over the past decade or so, it seems that more celebrities than ever before have started to partner with specialty coffee brands – or even launch their own. Some recent examples include:

“Celebrity partnerships or celebrity-owned brands aren’t new to the coffee sector,” Jake says. “Over the past ten years, people like film maker David Lynch, actor Hugh Jackman, and socialite and philanthropist Grace Hightower-De Niro have all launched their own coffee brands.”

Jake goes on to explain why he thinks celebrity endorsements have become more and more popular in the coffee industry.

“Consumption of specialty coffee has increased, so the perceived value of investing in the coffee sector has also risen,” he says. “This is especially apparent with La Colombe’s recent billion dollar valuation and acquisition.

“Everyone wants to be part of the unstoppable train that is specialty coffee,” he adds. “A growing number of beer and liquor companies are trying to partner with specialty coffee brands, too. It’s largely considered a safe investment with steady returns.”

Jimmy Butler and Chris Brickley at NBA Store in Paris.

Looking at BigFace’s success

Circling back to Jimmy Butler and BigFace, the brand has seen a lot of success since its early beginnings. Butler has spoken extensively about how he and other NBA players lived in a “social bubble” at the Walt Disney World resort during the pandemic. 

After feeling unimpressed by the coffee offerings at the resort, Butler purchased an espresso machine and started selling US $20 cups of Salvadoran coffee to his NBA teammates – but initially as a “joke”.

However, throughout the pandemic and in the months following, Butler says he started to invest more in coffee education and training, including learning how to pour latte art. Butler also visited farms in Costa Rica to understand more about coffee production.

The BigFace founder even purchased more than 1,000lbs of three 90 plus-point lots at the 2021 Cup of Excellence El Salvador auction – totalling over US $65,000.

Since then, BigFace has partnered with a number of brands, including some specialty coffee companies. These include:

As part of its most recent collaboration, BigFace has partnered with coffee equipment company Fellow. The two brands are selling a line of limited-edition brewing accessories. These include the Stagg EKG Pro Studio kettle, Ode Gen 2 grinder, and Stagg [X] Dripper set, to name a few.

“I’ve admired… the Fellow brand for several years now,” Butler said in a press release. “Not only do I own and personally use many of their great coffee products, their commitment to premium design and new innovation is unmatched.”

Jimmy Butler carries a coffee machine.

How much value is in these partnerships?

Whether you like them or not, specialty coffee-celebrity partnerships and endorsements are popular. Research from Morning Consult found that 34% of adults are more likely to visit a coffee chain if their favourite musician promotes it. Looking at Gen Z and millennial consumers, this jumps to 44% and 51%, respectively. 

This means that celebrity collaborations can potentially grow interest in specialty coffee. Based on findings, this is particularly apparent among younger demographics who are already drinking more coffee in the first place.

“I don’t believe tea drinkers will suddenly start drinking coffee simply because a celebrity is endorsing a certain brand,” Jake explains. “However, I do think that existing coffee consumers will be drawn to these brands, especially if they are focused on a specific set of values and beliefs – or a lifestyle – associated with the particular celebrity.”

There is an argument that celebrity endorsements can commercialise specialty coffee and make it less authentic. In this case, the only way to truly add value is for these collaborations to leave a positive and lasting impact on the sector.

“In the case of Grace Hightower-De Niro and Hugh Jackman, they both invested in coffee to support certain communities,” Jake says. “Hugh was inspired by a village in Ethiopia, while Grace was motivated by the people of Rwanda. 

“These projects and brands were created to provide greater market access to producers, and to sell products that impact people in these communities,” he adds. “For example, Hightower-De Niro’s Coffee of Grace is direct trade and makes sure to pay above Fair Trade minimum prices, while also handling all of the logistics.”

Questioning the motives behind these partnerships

Not all coffee-celebrity collaborations will have the same message or level of impact. But as long as specialty coffee brands stay true to their values of quality, sustainability, transparency, and traceability, these partnerships are likely to benefit the wider sector.

Moreover, as the specialty coffee industry continues growing, consumers will keep looking for the latest and newest trends – or they could lose interest. In line with this, celebrity partnerships and collaborations could be one of the solutions, but only if consumers perceive them as genuine and valuable.

“Some celebrity-backed coffee brands – like BigFace, Green Day’s Oakland Coffee Works, and heavy metal singer Rob Zombie’s collaboration with Dead Sled Coffee – seem to be more inspired by the culture and business of coffee,” Jake tells me. “They appear to rely more on third-party coffee companies, rather than fully investing in sourcing coffee themselves.

“Celebrity brands without an underlying ethos or message will be less successful than those which have them,” he adds.

Showcasing authenticity

Looking at Jimmy Butler specifically, it’s clear the NBA player did his homework – and deserves credit for it. From investing in learning about specialty coffee to visiting farms to partnering with well-respected roasters like Onyx Coffee, BigFace has evolved from a side project to a high-end coffee lifestyle brand.

Furthermore, with Butler planning to retire from basketball and open permanent coffee shops in Miami and San Diego in the coming years, it’s clear the NBA player is serious about making a career in specialty coffee.

A celebrity coffee partnership between Artpresso Design and BIGFACE.

With global consumption of specialty coffee only continuing to grow, coffee-celebrity partnerships are also going to become more prominent. As an industry, we have to make the collective decision to accept and engage with those that we feel are authentic and genuine.

“Specialty coffee isn’t courting celebrities,” Jake concludes. “Instead, celebrities are seeing the value in specialty coffee and looking for ways to participate.” 

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on why more musicians are launching their own coffee brands.

Photo credits: BigFace Coffee, Fellow, Artpresso Design, Blue Bottle Coffee

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