Coffee is one of those products that has an ever-present role in many of our lives, especially those of us with a caffeine addiction or who live in a coffee-shop capital like London. Despite its constancy, the category is always evolving to keep up with (and sometimes drive) broader consumer tastes and values. A recent visit to the annual London Coffee Festival reinforced our view that the role coffee plays in culture is shifting, from an elevated caffeine boost for productivity – a tool to help face the day – to a slower, more mindfully-paced source of easy pleasure at any time. Building on shifts we identified previously about the sense of escape and creativity communicated through coffee packaging, specialty coffee is offering up a new way to understand what coffee offers us in daily life. 

One of the ideas we touched on in our recent podcast episode is the history of coffee as a fuel for productivity, most recently white collar labour, and by extension specialty coffee as a cultural indicator of economic and social success. In the 90s and 00s major cities saw white collar office workers carrying their branded coffee cups (often with highly personalised orders inside) on the daily commute, ready to power through the day fuelled by gourmet caffeine. And more recently coworking spaces like WeWork were fitted out with barista-staffed coffee counters to ensure that the work of the tech and creative classes could keep flowing throughout the day. However, as we discuss in our podcast, coffee is increasingly protesting against this cultural role, and instead becoming a source of respite and escape in the daily routine. Instead of fuelling productivity, it’s helping to release the pressure to be ‘always-on’, and always doing more by providing a ritualised pause and an enjoyable sensorial experience.

Increasingly we see that specialty coffee brands are reflecting this in naming, logos, and imagery used. Intermission Coffee is one, whose name indicates a pause in the day, a break from the action and productivity. Their logo is an ellipsis, reinforcing this sense of pause and stretching out of time, whilst their website encourages you to take a break to google baby pigeons, or anything else that is a ‘waste’ of time. Similarly, Elsewhere Coffee plays into the idea of mental escape and exploration as well, with a house blend named “Daydreamer” and a logo depicting a cartoon pair of legs disappearing into a black hole, possibly a metaphor for wandering thoughts. Other roasteries like Groundstate, and Amsterdam’s Five Ways feature imagery of people lying down or sitting (in sometimes cartoonishly unrealistic postures) indicating a sense of anti-movement, again that coffee provides a pause and a chance to rest mentally and physically. These coffee brands are all about the escape from purposeful action and applied thinking.

Some coffee brands we encountered at the festival take a slightly different approach, aligning themselves with subcultures that are anti-9-to-5 in their values and approach to life. Australia’s Urban Baristas displayed promotional materials featuring surfers in Australia, drawing on the laid-back, go-with-the-flow reputation of that subculture. And UK-based Routes depicts a VW bus on pack, communicating an association with ‘van life’ living (as seen and promoted on social media), in which freedom and autonomy are key, and repetitive productive work is not necessarily the goal. And Scenery, as the name suggests alongside packaging featuring imagery of long winding roads through open landscapes, suggests ‘slow travel’ and taking time to appreciate the scenery around us, rather than rushing past to tick off the next task. Additionally, across all the specialty coffee brands we saw at the festival, this increased value on slowing down and taking a moment is reinforced by the ongoing dedication to listing flavour descriptors on pack and in coffee shops, indicating a need to stop and savour the sensorial qualities of the cup, as well as one’s thoughts and surroundings.

Overall, we see that specialty coffee is offering a clear break from the history of coffee as fuel for constant productivity, or a functional boost to start the day off right. For many years both in-home and out-of-home coffee has been positioned as helping us do more, and work more – and by extension drinking and carrying a coup of speciality coffee became a symbol of busy-ness, success, and being aspirationally productive. However, despite its continued role as a source of caffeine, specialty coffee increasingly offers us a chance to escape the ‘daily grind’ and let our minds wander. Coffee and caffeine is increasingly a source of relaxation, rather than a burst of energy. 

3 Key Takeaways for Brands

  1. Coffee remains a cultural status symbol, but increasingly speciality coffee is focused more on creative values and mindfulness rather than indicating conventional ideas of “success”; brands should consider how they can authentically play into this, for example aligning with subcultures or ambassadors that share resonant cultural values.

  2. Whilst specialty coffee encourages consideration and savouring, it’s anything from serious or formal: there’s room to embrace play and silliness and inject moments of fun into daily life.

  3. Even products with a functional benefit can take on roles that may seem contradictory to that benefit (such as a caffeinated beverage for relaxation); by understanding the wider cultural system (for example attitudes towards work and leisure) it’s possible to see how brands can position themselves creatively and forge new roles in culture.

Isobel Grad, Project Director

Beyond the Grind: Coffee’s cultural downshift