September 23, 2015

The Cold Brew Coffee Craze: When Big Brands Go Indie


Photo courtesy of Riley Tarver

According to Mintel, cold brew coffee sales have grown 115% from 2014 to 2015. One hundred and fifteen percent! That’s a lot of coffee-curious people ditching their regular iced coffee for the once-niche menu item. If you’re completely in the dark, think of cold brew as the more polished and sophisticated older sister to regular iced coffee: It has a smoother, less bitter flavor and is more caffeinated due to its lengthy brewing process. Unlike regular iced coffee, which is brewed hot and then cooled over ice, cold brew involves steeping fresh ground coffee in cold water up to 24 hours.

For years, the market for cold brew has been dominated by hipster consumers sipping brands like Stumptown, Chameleon and Blue Bottle Coffee, but thanks to popular companies like Starbucks Coffee House and Peet’s Coffee & Tea, cold brew has hit the mainstream. As larger companies have successfully picked up on the hipster trend and infiltrated the cold brew market, there’s been a newfound demand for the small-batch coffee.

I first tried cold brew years ago, before it was a household name. I don’t think of myself as a hipster but I do I consider myself someone that really values the marketed experience that each brand and product has to offer. As a result, cold brew became an instant favorite for me. Of course I had a specific brand of cold brew that I loved, but I also explored, I began to notice that regardless of the cold brew brand, the cold brew beverage marketing and experience remained fairly consistent. This is not to say that all cold brew coffee brands market their product the same, but that they all used similar marketing components. Most brands have minimalist marketing, an edgy but sophisticated tone, an eco-aware presence, and exude exclusivity. Poured it in a sleek glass bottle and you have the basic marketing components of the cold brew category.

Now, it seems that every other person has heard of cold brew and I can go to and coffee shop (including Starbucks… in any of their 9 million locations) and get a fix. Interestingly, regardless of its growing availability, the general cold brew marketing elements remains fairly consistent. Companies at the peak of mainstream, like Starbucks and Peet’s, are borrowing similar conventions of smaller brewers, like Stumptown and Chameleon, to market their beverage to appear more authentic. Starbucks has been exclusively using pictures of cold brew in mason jars (the reigning mascot of hipster culture) to market their new menu item. The marketing language, “limited, brew methodology, small batch, and craft- brewing,” also resembles that of the original cold brew brands.

All of this underscores the power behind a good brand experience. As big companies continue to offer cold brew as a menu item, it seems that the marketing that goes along with it is just as important as the taste of the product. Consumers gravitate towards the brand experience that they want. In this case, the hipster exclusive element makes cold brew appealing and authentic. Without this established persona cold brew, as a beverage, is just another complicated twist on regular iced coffee. But with the right marketing, it is the best and the boldest.