What does a branded bean say about you? Ian Boughton asks whether customers look for the prestige of a named beverage brand, or if they are just happy get their caffeine hit, whatever its provenance
In many restaurants and hotels, there is an uncomfortable balance over beverage branding. The puzzle is this: is a consumer influenced by brand image in ‘quality' surroundings, or does the presence of a major brand overshadow a hospitality operators' own identity? Conversely, if they serve an anonymous or little-known coffee, how do they reassure the consumer of its quality?
But the big question may be whether beverage branding makes any difference. The trade has always argued that consumers buy coffee by brand, but a survey by Consumer Intelligence last month said that a fifth of customers think the nearest coffee is the best.
In some catering situations, there has been a trend in recent years to serve major high-street brands. Starbucks appeared in both corporate catering and hotels, but as high street coffee tastes moved, so did consumer reactions.
"There was a saying that no-one got fired for bringing a high-street brand into their business. These were the names that people recognised and trusted, but this is now changing," says Paddy Bishopp of the Paddy and Scotts coffee brand.
It is true that brands sellâ¦ to a degree, says Tim Sturk, barista trainer for the contract caterer BaxterStorey, which operates in many top-class workplace and business venues.
"The more familiar the customers become with brands, the less appealing they will be. In our sector, some clients went for the brands, but the brands let themselves down as they didn't support their own products.
"It is proven with both food and wine that customers are demanding better products and coffee is catching up. Creating an image around a non-branded offer is now about creating perceived quality of the result in the cup."
At the roaster Coffee Real, founder Gary Best agrees.
"The high street brands do not sell coffee - they sell a culture wrapped around the beverage. We have never been able to understand why a hospitality venue that is trying to set a benchmark by their coffee offering would want to use this - or a product that â¨features in supermarkets.
"For most customers, the taste will feature over the brand, so give them no mixed messages - let them comprehend your offering, then back it up with credibility when the packet is opened.â¨If you can't do this, you will not â¨be effective."
Several coffee brands accept that their identity is simply not wanted in the hotel and restaurant sector, and they accept this constructively.
"There can be brand conflict," confirms Marco Olmi of Drury Tea and Coffee. "Our view has always been 'we're here to make you shine, and you get the glory', and a lot of places use us because we don't demand in-your-face branding. We're only as visible as we're allowed to be."
Rob Briggs, managing director at Rombouts, says: "We do get a lot of retail business from customers who have asked a waiter: 'what coffee are you serving?' This shows they are interested, which means it is certainly worthwhile to say on a menu: 'We choose to serve this brand, or this provenance'." A worthwhile coffee â¨supplier will accept this.
"Some venues like the endorsement of a well-known brand, and others will refuse point-blank to allow our name to be mentioned. We do not demand to plaster the Rombouts logo everywhere, but we do want to be in there. So, the right thing is a text explanation â¨on a menu, exactly the same as one about sourcing your meat from the local butcher. What â¨the customer really wants to seeâ¨is an assurance that says 'we, â¨the venue, take our beveragesâ¨seriously'."
At Café du Monde, managing director David Latchem deliberately named a brand to be acceptable for in-room service.
"My attitude has always been 'taste over brand'. We already know that when a venue holds a blind tasting - with their business heads on - they get a better result than when they're being blinded by a big name," he says.
"So we created our Service en Chambre as a deliberately discreet and 'innocuous' brand. The coffee is high-quality single origin, and the name doesn't scare anyone."
Put quality before brand every time, agrees Grant Lang, managing director at Mozzo. "Keeping consumers who perceive themselves to be 'educated' coffee drinkers requires a more subtle approach than catching attention in a mainstream environment. Find the balance between the flair of the artisan roaster and the â¨professional standards of the bigger brands, and your beverage offer will succeed."
Curiously, even the very biggest names are now being more â¨creative about their branding in top-class venues.
"When hotels get to a certain class, they don't want a brand - even ours," acknowledges Marco Arrigo of Eurofoodbrands, distributor of Illy coffee. "At a certain height, even we have to become invisible.
"However, the biggest peeve for top hotels is seeing their customers walking through the foyer with Starbucks-branded cups.
"I was in a client meeting discussing this when the answer came to usâ¦ we created a branded Illy disposable-cup system purely for room service. It's a paper cup, with the coffee brewed in the room-service kitchen, and it's working, because everyone likes it. At a very high-class level, we have suddenly made the branded paper cup cool again."
Branding in the coffee sector has always tended to 'shout' - the classic example is the Costa takeaway cup, which bears only one word that can be read from 50 yards away. Its job is to say: 'there is a Costa in the area'. In similar vein, the high street signage for major Italian brands often carries only one word - the word Lavazza or Illy calls out everything there is to say.
But great coffee branding for a high-class venue can be extremely subtle when it wants to be.
Lavazza has created the Puraforma cup for Michelin-starred restaurants and the like. The logo is so discreet, the customer has to look closely to see it.
Quickfire Tableware of Sheffield is an unusual company, specialising in the custom branding and decoration of ceramic cups and tableware. In many cases, their clients want brand names to stand out - but in many cases, says founder Simon Martin, they want a low-key brand message.
"We have done several designs like this. In the case of Marriott hotels, the aim was for a discreet, classy offering. This type of request tends to come from a hotel or restaurant."
MAKING TIME FOR TEA
Tea branding in the hospitality trade has always featured an intriguing argument - the big brands say the consumer wants the assurance of the tea they know from home, but the small 'boutique' brands say the consumer most certainly does not want to pay several pounds for the same tea they brew in their kitchens.
"If I ran a hotel, I would think about my relationship with brands," acknowledges â¨Nick Kilby, co-founder of Teapigs and â¨pioneer of the pyramid-shaped tea bag.
"Some restaurants just put 'whole-leaf â¨tea from Teapigs' on their menu, andâ¨this reassures the customer the â¨tea isn't from the cash-and-carry."
At the New London Tea Company, marketing manager Paul Maxwell says the brand has to match the price-point of the venue. "A customer in a four-star hotel does not see bog-standard supermarket tea as commensurate with what they're paying for the roomâ¦ they expect to see something that â¨has been 'selected'."
By contrast, certain big brands argue that the customer will indeed â¨pay for the tea they see on retail shelves.
"A boutique brand will not command â¨the same consumer recognition as a â¨household brand," argues Dorothy Sieber, marketing director at Tetley. "By serving a well-known household brand, operators â¨can reaffirm consumer confidence in their offering." The argument is that the hospitality â¨sector makes tea more 'experiential'.
"Yorkshire Tea's success in the home is driving demand for the blend in hospitality," says John Sutcliffe, out-of-home and convenience controller for Taylors â¨of Harrogate. "Operators add value through the experience, which â¨will get customers to part with â¨their money for something â¨which, in reality, we know they â¨can brew at home for a few pence.
"Too often the tea-making ritual isn't given care or time at home â¨- as a result, a pot of tea outside â¨of the house, presented properly, â¨is an opportunity many customers will pay more for."
Baxter Storey 0118 9356700www.baxterstorey.comCafe du Monde 01322 284804www.cafedumonde.co.uk - â€">http://www.cafedumonde.co.uk)â€¨
Coffee Real 01403 263381www.coffeereal.co.ukDrury 020 7740 1100www.drury.uk.comIlly 01604 821 234www.eurofoodbrands.co.ukLavazza 01895 209750www.lavazza-coffee.co.uk
New London Tea 020 7802 3250â¨www.londontea.co.ukâ¨
Paddy and Scotts 0844 4778586 â¨www.paddyandscotts.co.uk Quickfire 0114 2489416 www.quickfiretableware.co.uk â¨
Rombouts 0845 6040188www.professional.rombouts.co.ukTaylors
01423 814000â¨www.taylorsofharrogate.co.uk Teapigs 020 8568 1313www.teapigs.co.ukâ¨
Tetley 0845 6066328 www.tetleyforcaterers.co.uk