The uncanny way that coffee brands shape digital innovation.

published on
September 9, 2020

I’m stealing sips of a perfectly hot-warm homebrew between key taps. The Komodo Dragon roast from Starbucks, with a dash of oat milk and a little honey in my favorite ceramic mug. Most of my mornings look like this now. Except Thursday. On Thursday, I do a crazy thing and go out for coffee. My special over-halfway-done-with-the-week treat. If I order from the app it’s ready by the end of my 6-minute walk, I collect another 88 reward beans, and there’s enough time before 9am to make toast.

This is my routine now, but it looked a lot different five months ago. This ritualistic behavior around coffee has been hard-coded by coffee brands trailblazing prior paths to caffeination—from mobile apps, to drive thru, to reward programs. Now, the question is begged: Will coffee brands innovate in the new era of coffee?

Consumers are interacting with coffee differently than ever before.

Maybe you’ve traded your hour-long commute for that fancy french press you always wanted. Maybe your first words to anyone in the morning are the incoherent mumbles of gratitude to your Nespresso. (Can relate.) Maybe you’re lucky enough to be in-footprint for coffee delivery. (If so, we love that for you, and also please DM me your cross-street.) For most of us, our coffee routines look different from the quick pick-up-and-go method we learned and loved for years. Not only have we explored new routes, but we’ve solidified entirely new habits.

What does this mean for consumer-to-brand interactivity?

The golden question in advertising right now is how brands are responding to consumer behavior shifts in light of the pandemic. This begs the question specifically for coffee brands. The big players—Starbucks, Dunkin, Peet’s, Biggby, to drop a few names—have built their infrastructure over the last 30 years around coffee to-go. And while that’s not going away, it’s becoming clear that it’s no longer the way, either. And while this will inevitably change the way consumers engage with coffee brands physically, I think it’s even more interesting to consider the digital implications.

Coffee brands have been leaders in past digital consumer advancement.

Coffee brands have been at the helm of digital tech innovation for mobile consumer-to-brand interaction for the last 10 years. Enter: the mobile app. Both Starbucks and Caribou launched their first mobile app in 2009, followed by Dunkin in 2012, with the idea to make payments and rewards one integrated mobile experience. All of this at-tempo with the creation of Google Wallet in 2011 and Apple Pay in 2014.

Take the Starbucks app for example. What started as a relatively simple mobile credit card replacement is now a multi-faceted mecca of brand interaction. You can easily conjure up previous orders, locate your nearest shop, cash in rewards points, discover seasonal promotions, and more. This mobile brand ecosystem is the model for retail chains today, from grocery, to clothing, to health and beauty. The coffee industry has no doubt helped lay the groundwork for the expectation of retailer apps that 86% of consumers report to use today.

Coffee chains are adapting. But will they innovate?

The big players in coffee have already been adapting during the pandemic, optimizing for drive-thru business and increasing sanitation standards. Starbucks problem-solved early with their expansion of mobile and drive-thru services (among other things). Although Panera launched their coffee loyalty program pre-pandemic, they’re charging ahead with the coffee subscription model as a mobile-friendly loyalist builder. On the home brewing front, Peet’s is finding success with grocery store bean sales.

But will adaptation become innovation? The earliest step toward innovation we’ve seen from the big brands is from Dunkin. They recently announced major promotions in digital leadership, including the creation of a Chief Digital Strategy Officer along with movements in digital marketing and information technology. Dunkin plans to expand their existing DD Perks mobile program and “build a digital ecosystem that will deliver an even more personalized, frictionless experience across all channels,” said new DSO Philip Auerbach. With consumers being more concerned than ever about sanitation, safety, and transparency, this step toward a next-level mobile brand environment is one in the right direction.

No single coffee brand has quite cracked the code, but lots of exciting new angles are being approached. This coffee ground is ripe for digital innovation. Only time will tell how they brew it.

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