As a mundane commodity, and for some even a daily necessity, it can be easy to take for granted the gradual shifts in how coffee brands represent themselves, and how we incorporate these brands into our lives as consumers. While specialty coffee (also sometimes referred to as “third wave”) typically leads the way for premiumness in the coffee category, it draws on influences from broader culture to align with shifting customer tastes and interests. Looking at the branding, packaging, and communications around specialty coffee provides a window into what consumers perceive as premium, and the kinds of values and experiences they look for in the items they consume. Increasingly specialty coffee brands are differentiating themselves from each other and a unified understanding of coffee, moving away from cues of ‘craft’ or minimalist cues of transparency, for example, to develop unique styles that speak to values that go beyond the quality of the coffee within the bag. Within this we are seeing a few themes emerging which speak to the place coffee has in the cultural – and premium – landscape.

For a few years now minimalism has been used across categories to communicate a sense of purity and honesty, and in coffee this has been no different. However many brands are adopting a blend of two styles, using minimalist backdrops with pops of bright gradients of colour and abstract patterns, which are contained within bounded labels or sides of the pack. Cairngorm Coffee, for example, features a primarily unmarked white bag, punctuated with a central label filled with a bright gradient of saturated colours, or Assembly coffee which similarly features minimal colour and illustration, save for a rectangular portion featuring an abstract, painterly image representing the rich sensory experience within. These packs, among others, are blending abstract, colourful, and in some cases slightly chaotic illustration styles – cues often used on ‘nootropic’ and gently mind-altering wellness products – with familiar ‘clean’ minimalism. There is a unique blend of experiences being communicated here, which brings together the naturalness and transparent sourcing minimalism continues to signal, with an added level of a transportive, emotionally evocative flavour experience. Interestingly in many cases the minimalism is still the primary style, subtly communicating that the Third Wave value of showcasing a high quality ingredient straight from the source remains the guiding principle, within which there is room to play and explore.

Other roasteries, such as Hundred House and Frukt use playful type layouts, with words following flowing curves or tumbling around the pack face to communicate a creative, playful uplift without distracting from the Third Wave coffee values of transparency and high-quality coffee beans. In this case premium coffee is perhaps less ‘funky’ and mentally transportive, but still offers fun and creative stimulation in addition to the expected benefits of a cup of coffee. In this way premium coffee is positioning itself as a unique drinking experience that blends a set of ethical values with a more personal emotional and sensorial benefit.

In a different evolution of craft and minimalism, some coffee roasters are aligning their products more with fashion than with food products. Whilst retaining the Third Wave coffee information tables showcasing origin details, WatchHouse for example refers to its coffee as a “collection” bringing to mind seasonal shows put on by couture houses, and uses a serif font on an otherwise minimalist background recalling brands like OffWhite and Burberry. Hundred House also features a series, separate from its main line, called “Freak and Unique” which offers limited, exploratory offerings (often with rare varieties or unusual fermentation methods) providing a limited-edition ‘drop’ to the coffee category that is more often found in streetwear and luxury fashion. Adding to this experimental, slightly high-brow association, the visual styles used for these special edition coffees are unique and experimental. Packs feature out-of-context imagery aligning the coffee within with contemporary art and leading-edge editorials and social media imagery. In these cases specialty coffee becomes a part of a broader lifestyle aesthetic, showcasing taste and representing a value on creativity and artistic experimentation.

Whilst specialty coffee, as with every category, is always evolving, at the moment we are seeing brands thoughtfully build on the fundamentals of the category – for example a focus on origin, and clearly communicating the quality of the base product (coffee beans) – to stand out and re-define what makes a premium coffee brand. For some this means suggesting an emotional and psychological benefit that goes beyond, or comes naturally from, the quality of the coffee being used by roasters: the brand helps guide customers towards a more exploratory or uplifting experience in their day-to-day. For others we see increasing alignment with broader lifestyle categories, making coffee not only a high-quality taste experience but a desirable aesthetic one as well. Overall these trends demonstrate the need to not only offer a high quality product and adhere to the expected values of the category, but to continue to align with broader expectations of premium experiences in order to stay relevant.

3 key takeouts for brands:

  1. When thinking about coffee and beverage branding, consider the lifestyle values and broader categories your customers engage with – what can your brand and product say about their aesthetics, attitude, and lifestyle?
  2. Keep in mind the fundamental values desired in your brand’s category whilst looking for a uniquely ownable brand positioning – what do consumers want to be reassured of, how is this communicated meaningfully, and how can it be combined with other ideas and benefits?
  3. In food and drink more broadly, premiumness has moved away from overt, product-led benefits to a more abstract emotional space enabled by the product. What does your brand align with, what emotional benefits can it offer, and how is this best communicated?

Isobel Grad, Project Director

Premium Blends: How specialty coffees are mixing the perfect cup of culture