“No coffee can be good in the mouth that does not first send a sweet offering of odor to the nostrils.
– Henry Ward Beecher
That was the title, in Spanish anyway, of a panel presentation I just returned from. The presentation was held at the University of Palermo’s School of Design and Communication and included seven speakers, followed by a coffee and pastry tasting. Of the roughly 150 people there, 120 came for the free pastries and coffee, evidenced by the slow disappearance of the audience to the outer lobby during the course of the two hours of talks (not to mention the couple of dozen who never even bothered to enter the auditorium), and the mad, near trampling rush for the door when the seventh speaker had said goodnight. That and the wild grabbing of pastries, cups of coffee, and stuffing of purses with the former. I managed one brownie before being body-checked by a 70-something year old woman who screeched at me to get out of her way as she grabbed a half dozen of them and then careened off to the next table. Deciding on corporal safety as my best bet I beat a retreat – I don’t need the extra sugar calories anyway, and it was too late in the day to start downing cups of java.
The presentations were, while perhaps a trifle dry, given that the focus was on the marketing of the image of coffee (after all, that’s what the school is about), quite enlightening. Mostly from a cultural perspective – five of the speakers were each from a different country and talking about different brand developments, and while one brand does not an entire culture make, my personal experience would suggest that they weren’t far off of being representative. The remaining two speakers were both Argentine, one a psychologist, the other a sommelier….
First up, the psychologist, who nattered on for about ten minutes about coffee being not just a form of alimentation and nutrition (really???) but that it also offers up pleasure (no question) and is symbolic of the cultures in which it is consumed – agreeing with my point above and what I think you’ll see below.
Next, a rep from Starbucks. Now, you know I’m not a fan of the coffee nor the company’s carpet bombing approach to expansion, on the other hand, I do like their commitment to things like Fair Trade and organic coffees. According to the panelist, the company’s purpose is to Create a Coffee Community or Culture – something that sounds so very left-coast U.S. He spent most of his 20 minutes talking about the history of the company, growing from its first store in 1971 in Seattle, opened by a duo of professors and a writer with a passion for the bean. By the mid-80s there were 6 locations. By the early 90s the company was opening a new store every day. And today, despite this year announcing the closing of 900 stores in the U.S., they expect to grow by another 900 stores outside of the country – I know my neighborhood now has three of them in 10 minute walking distance with a fourth opening in a few weeks. The rep talked proudly about how the company has changed Japanese and Chinese culture by getting the younger generation to frequent Starbucks rather than traditional teahouses and how the company expects that they will outstrip the teahouse market within a few years. The last few minutes of his talk he devoted to their Fair Trade and Shared Planet initiatives, but it clearly wasn’t the focus of the talk. He then fiddled about impatiently while the next speaker talked and as that person finished, stood up, vaguely apologized and announced that he had other things to do rather than sit there and listen to the rest of the panel, and walked out.
Next up, an Argentine brand, Cafe Martínez, which was founded in 1933 as a strictly roasting and retail operation, which it continued as until 1994 when they opened their first cafe (starting in the mid-70s they offered, Italian style, espressos standing at the counter, but no seating). The founder, Don Atilano, ran the business until 1975, and it continued as a family run operation until 2000 when it converted to a completely franchised structure. The interesting thing, they don’t seem to have any clear branding strategy – design and architecture is left to the individual locations and franchisees, and is expected to conform to the neighborhood look rather than a corporate image. They do offer a comprehensive education program to their franchisees, and employees at each location are offered a tracking program that after five years has them rotate through all positions and then moved into management of the store, and then another three years later they are offered the franchise training gratis, followed by an offer to open their own store, with financing from the company. Beyond that, everything seemed a bit haphazard, with some varied recycling initiatives that come and go, training classes in conjunction with one of the local sommelier schools (Escuela Argentina de Sommeliers), and a sort of “whatever comes up” attitude.
On to a representative of Nespresso, a Swiss company. The plan, to be the Icon of Perfect Coffee. The method – flawlessly functioning machines, foolproof capsule packaging, precisely designed cups, taking the human element out of the process completely, in order to have the customer not have to deal with any variability. Does that sound as stereotypically Swiss as I think it does? 27 different blends of coffees, a commitment to only the finest of beans, 24/7 customer and technical service worldwide, and a relatively new initiative to open “boutique” locations (200 to be in place by the end of this year) where customers can come and enjoy the coffee and go glassy eyed looking over the machines. Oh, I forgot, the first half of his 15 minute presentation was the company’s slick marketing video with pounding music (first tribal, then pop, then operatic) and ADD style imagery that zooms by nearly too fast to follow.
Following these three company agents, two national folk – first, someone representing Colombian coffee. No, it wasn’t Juan Valdez, though he was a big part of the focus of her talk (other than a five minute tourism video on the natural splendors of Colombia). Valdez became the face of Colombian coffee beginning in 1960, representing the growers’ coalition that had started up in 1927. There have been three Juan Valdez since that time, each one selected in competitions of various campesinos, or field workers, who vied for the chance to be the face of the nation. The most recent JV came on the scene in 2006, the winner out of 2,800 applicants. The focus of Colombia’s marketing campaign is one of making it all seem very family and friends oriented, and it’s clearly a successful campaign, with Juan being, according to various marketing research studies, one of the most recognizable food or drink icons on the planet. We also found out a bit of the coffee statistics – the country produces 8% of the world’s coffee, however, according to her, near 100% of that is of premium grade, which puts it in the top 10% of beans. It’s also likely the only country in the world with a coffee theme park, Panaca – officially a park for urbanites to get back in touch with nature, but much of that nature is apparently coffee related – not surprising given that the coffee industry makes up 35% of Colombia’s workforce.
It was borderline hysterical to watch the woman seated to the Colombian’s right, who was the rep from Costa Rica. She could barely contain herself as the first talked on about quality and marketing, and plunged in immediately with asserting, more or less, “we thought of all that first” – having started their own growers’ coalition in 1906 and utilizing a campesino with his wagon laden with sacks of beans as their marketing image for the last 104 years. On the other hand, who recognizes that? Costa Rica’s approach to brand image is one of a “Unique Country with Unique Coffee”, grown on volcanic soils, and is all about peace and love, two themes she repeated often. It is also apparently, or at least claiming, to be the only country with a national law that protects growers – what those protections are wasn’t clear, but the law is there. It is also one of the few countries with UNESCO declared production zones of historical interest – I was pleased to find out that the one considered the top of the heap is Tarrazú, the place where we get our coffee from at Casa S after having tasted through a couple of dozen possibilities.
Finally, the sommelier, from the school mentioned above, spoke very briefly and just, more or less, to let everyone know that there’s a place in town called Espacio Gasset where the public is invited to come to various types of food and beverage tastings on a weekly basis. He spoke for only about 3-4 minutes, said goodnight and the crowd rushed for the door, while the organizer was trying to announce all the various thank yous to the presenters. Virtually no one heard her.