Creating Category Intrigue Builds Brand Intrigue

“Customers don’t care about new brands, they care about new categories.” — Al and Laura Ries


Brand Autopsy Archeology Week continues…

On December 29, 2003 I wrote a post sharing a “hugely profound and evocative branding statement.”

“A leading brand should promote the category, not the brand.”

That statement is from the book, The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding by Al & Laura Ries. I riffed off this smart branding law in my book, TRIBAL KNOWLEDGE, and explained how Starbucks followed this law to become a leading brand. That riff from my book is below. Enjoy.

first published in September 2006

Creating Category Intrigue Builds Brand Intrigue

book-tribal-knowlegeStarbucks did not create the specialty coffee category in the United States. But by 1996 Starbucks clearly emerged as the leading specialty coffee retailer. And it established this leadership position not by creating interest in the Starbucks brand, but rather by creating intrigue with the specialty coffee category.

It sounds counterintuitive to promote the category before the brand but, as marketing consultants Al and Laura Ries point out in The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding, “Customers don’t care about new brands, they care about new categories.” Customers looking to be part of the “new best thing” are looking for a totally new experience, not just a new product. In the ’80s and early ’90s the specialty coffee category was just that—totally new. But for customers to be attracted to the new experience, they had to know about it; for customers to appreciate the category’s leading brand, they first had to appreciate the category. Without widespread consumer acceptance of the specialty coffee category, there would be no Starbucks brand to promote.

We can laugh now, but twenty years ago the specialty coffee category was virtually unknown beyond a few coffee connoisseurs. Most of us had never sipped a cappuccino (much less pronounced it) or savored the rich, bold flavor of a single-origin coffee like Sumatra. Most of us drank canned coffee and we liked it (okay, at least we tolerated it).

Before Starbucks could get customers to appreciate and admire its unique brand of coffee, it had to educate them to first appreciate and admire the specialty coffee category. So Starbucks set forth on its mission to educate customers on 1) what the specialty coffee category is, 2) what specialty coffee does, and 3) what specialty coffee aspires to be.

Starbucks promoted what the specialty coffee category is through teaching customers the appreciable differences between canned coffee and specialty coffee. The defining difference, shown especially in early marketing materials and employee training tools, is in the bean itself. Starbucks coffee uses only 100 percent high-quality arabica beans, while canned coffee uses inferior, lower-quality robusta beans. Arabica beans only grow at higher elevations and flourish in the shade. Because they’re grown higher, they take longer to grow, which partly accounts for their full flavor. Arabica beans can be dark-roasted to bring out an array of fuller flavors. Robusta beans, on the other hand, can grow in low elevations in full sunlight. Partly because robusta coffee trees grow quickly, they produce uninteresting, milder tasting coffee than do arabica beans. Plus, robusta beans can’t be dark-roasted without becoming burnt and extremely bitter tasting. Fast-growing beans roasted lightly means that costs can be maximized but at the expense of flavor—and maximizing costs (not flavor) is what the canned coffee companies do best.

The specialty coffee category is all about arabica beans. While coffee brewed with arabica beans cost more, the payoff is all in the taste. Starbucks could educate its customers about the differences of their coffees, but only through taste could the customers really ever begin to appreciate specialty coffee and what it could do.

Starbucks promoted what specialty coffee does by having customers taste the difference through sampling. One sip of a freshly brewed cup of Arabian Mocha Sanani and customers immediately knew that this coffee was different from what they drank out of a can—this was coffee they actually liked. And after sipping the slightly sweet, roasted nuttiness from a handcrafted caffé latte, customers knew this was something they wanted to experience again and again.

Starbucks showed its customers that coffee could be good, downright enjoyable. It promoted that specialty coffee aspires to be the uncommonly good “everyday coffee.” Yes, its cappuccinos and lattes could be viewed as occasional treats, but it is the dark-roasted brew—the “regular” coffee—that could and should kick-start any morning and cap-off any evening.

Starbucks shared its pride in its product with customers willing to learn about the specialty coffee category. By promoting the category and creating customer preference for higher-quality, better-tasting coffee, Starbucks became the recognized category leader. After all, a business is not defined by its brand, it’s defined by the “category” company it keeps.

Leading Questions…

  • What leadership role could (and should) your company play in promoting the category it does business in?
  • What activities might your business do to build greater customer-appreciation through education?
  • source: TRIBAL KNOWLEDGE: Business Wisdom Brewed from the Grounds of Starbucks Corporate Culture (2006)