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All I really need to know about branding I learned in a cup of coffee.

In the beginning, coffee arrived on our shores in unwieldy, roughly marked burlap sacks stacked in shipside heaps. You’ve seen the pictures: it’s the ultimate commodity if there ever was one. These mountains of green, undifferentiated beans are transformed into all manner of goods, services and experiences through human genius and branding alchemy.

Let’s explore what coffee has taught — and still teaches — about creating value through branding.

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Take Maxwell House, introduced in 1892 and America’s largest-selling coffee until the late 1980s. Its “good to the last drop” slogan was introduced in 1917! For decades Maxwell House worked on our psyches with consistency and repetition, hammering away at its proprietary positioning. The National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia introduced their Juan Valdez spokescharacter in 1958. He’s been hauling his beans to market one mule at a time ever since — flogging how soil, altitude, varieties and methods create great flavor. Both efforts focused on some brandable attribute of the product — its flavor or its provenance — and created a simple mnemonic for us.

Much more recently, Starbucks burst onto the American scene from a hyperactive corner of Seattle — the Pike Street Market, where dozens of artisanal food and specialty shops congregate. While Starbucks was founded in 1971, it was well into the 1980s before most of America got the first whiff of it. Inspiration struck Howard Schultz as he enjoyed the refined coffee culture of Italian espresso cafes, leading him to create the template for a “new American coffee experience.” Starbucks was the first national brand that taught Americans that coffee could transcend the morning pick-me-up to become an enveloping experience. Coffee could captivate the senses and become a catalyst for all manner of emotions. It could even create a framework for self-identification through nearly limitless customization and personalization. Starbucks exploited our human hunger for experience and emotional connection with brands to reshape the entire coffee category.

Today there’s a third wave of brand innovation and expression coursing through the coffee category. Coffee is once again teaching us how to push branding higher. In a recent article in Adweek, trendspotter Robert Klara explores how upscale artisanal coffee shops have pushed the envelope of customer experience by expanding to offer a host of free or paid classes in coffee-making.

Christian Ott, the director of coffee for Stone Creek, a 10-store chain of artisanal coffee shops in the Milwaukee area, started with a short, free seminar on coffee-making and found the demand and interest so high he expanded the curriculum into multiple three-hour sessions. “The Home Barista course is actually the same content we teach all of our new baristas,” Ott told Adweek. Coffee chains in New York, Seattle, San Diego and elsewhere are likewise focusing on educating customers.

Why go to all the trouble? In a hypercompetitive category like coffee retailing, why take on the added effort of education? Well, because it drives brand value, say these coffee experts. It sells beans, grows loyalty, drives word-of-mouth and lights up social media. It creates human connection between customers, staff and the coffee. It provides context and back-story to the cup. It does what great brand leaders do.

Discover why branding is leadership, not marketing.

Amber Jacobsen, co-owner of New York’s Toby’s Estate Coffee, started with a free class that grew into a comprehensive “Brew School” with tuition from $35 to $150. Jacobsen says the classes drive customer relationships that simply cannot be replicated with traditional marketing efforts. They have even become a recruiting tool. “All the time people say, ‘I love our coffee and want to work for you,’” she says.

Other proprietors underscore the brand-building power of the intimate educational experience.

“It helps us put our brand out there as an authority in the industry,” notes Jeremy Lynch, cofounder of Birch Coffee, with six stores in New York. Even the owner of modcup coffee co. — a café and espresso cart — is in the game: “We thought that having routine classes could allow us to generate a following that would be loyal to our core mission of brewing the finest fresh coffee experience,” says Justin Hicks, co-owner.

These anecdotes illustrate the holy grail of brand leadership — developing passionate acolytes and evangelists. Such intense emotional connections are only forged in the crucible of brand experience. They simply cannot be manufactured by advertisements, YouTube videos or social media interactions. You can’t buy them; you have to create them. Further, the coffee education trend underscores the brand leader’s ability to design and deliver brand-centric customer experiences.

Learn more about building your brand strategy.

What can Arkansas banks, restaurants, insurance agencies, wine shops, auto repair centers and parts retailers, physician groups, grocery stores, boutiques and other businesses learn from coffee? Well, let’s see … do said entities have any specialized knowledge, skills, expertise or resources that their customers do not have? Yes? Then they can package this knowledge into hour-long classes and offer them at low or no cost to customers and prospects. They can infuse the classes with their special personality, insights and expertise. And customers can leave smarter, more confident and more invested in the business’s brand than before.

Coffee can teach you everything you need to know about branding. Something to think about with your next cup.

If you’re interested in what we can learn from other beverages, check out this post on branding and winemaking.

This article was originally published in Talk Business under the title, “Coffee Teaches Branding, Again.”

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Author Martin Thoma

Began his agency career as a copywriter before co-founding Thoma Thoma more than 30 years ago. Now Martin focuses on helping brands grow by discerning, defining and articulating their unique strengths.

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