On False Equivalencies (or How Hipsters Are Ruining Coffee)

I tend to think a lot about some of the challenges facing craft or artisan coffee. Over time, these challenges have changed. Whereas once upon a time simple relevancy was a huge challenge, the last three years have seen a widespread market adoption of the high end of coffee in the US.

Much of this adoption has been driven by more effective marketing by the coffee businesses themselves, but the increasing demand for "authenticity" amongst the growing hipster market (and their serious use of social media to promote their brand decisions) has also been a driving force. Hipsters are the early-adopters of this world and are creating a huge market as the followers stream in after them.

Unfortunately, the hipster market is a challenging one.
In a number of ways.

For coffee companies, one of the big challenges is, in fact, in the intersection of marketing / branding and "authenticity."

Because hipsters are so vulnerable to being marketed to with either authenticity based messaging (or cynical "faux-thenticity"messaging in many cases), we are seeing decision-making around coffee based not upon coffee, but upon marketing - while being presented as being about coffee.

While I'm a huge fan of Tonx - this statement is deeply troubling to me -- and sadly ALL too common right now.

The implies a false equivalency - that Blue Bottle and Stumptown are (or were) comparable. And, in fact, they are comparable in a number of ways. But the implication is that their coffee is equivalent. I am confident that no-one at Blue Bottle or Stumptown would agree on this point. But the hipsters would argue to the death that they are.

And for the hipsters -- this is true. Both Blue Bottle and Stumptown (prior to the investments placed in each) represented the sort of faux-thenticity beloved by hipsters (and used to communicate their hipster cred).

The trouble is that hipsters talk about these brands not based upon their messaging, branding or market position - but rather about their coffee.

And this confuses everyone in the market - due to hipsters' aggressive use of social media among other things.

I mean... there is even a Flickr Hive Mind for "The World's Newest Photos of Blue Bottle and Stumptown" for god's sake!!! And blog posts. Foodies wonder. Even mainstream media has gotten in on the act.

There were a few years (before hipsters discovered speciality coffee) where it seemed like coffee was about to become about the coffee (rather than the brand and the marketing).

What we are seeing is the coffee version of gentrification. And I'm sure it makes the owners of companies like Stumptown and Blue Bottle very happy - as it is resulting in massive business opportunity.

But it's making it harder and harder to actually get good coffee - and harder and harder for coffee businesses that are interested first and foremost in coffee and customer experience to succeed.

In addition, because hipsters are (inherently) opposed to anything that attracts non-hipsters, they tend to reject the things they love once uncool people adopt them. This trend creating / destroying behavior is deeply frustrating as it's not based on anything the coffee companies do (coffee quality, customer experience, etc) but is instead effectively a form of punishing success.

This, in the end, is my hope. Sooner or later, the hipsters will move on and the businesses left behind will need to compete based upon things other than faux-thenticity. And some of them (sadly too few) will probably (I hope) choose to compete based on coffee.

In the meantime, beware the false equivalency.