The Coffee Marketing Pyramid: An Industry Framework
Coffee businesses sell similar products, operate in similar ways, and provide similar customer experiences. The standard marketing advice that works for other industries doesn’t work for us. The usual tactics, unfruitful.
My role as a former coffee shop manager included, on a small level, business growth. We relied on social media with moderate success, but everything else we tried—building an ecommerce store, writing coffee blogs, buying ads across town—seemed to sputter out with no ROI.
It took years of working with businesses across the industry, as well as in the greater F&B and food tech worlds, to understand how the default method of marketing in the coffee industry was backwards.
We in the coffee marketing world (that’s most coffee business owners) need our own framework that’s fitting for our industry’s unique existence.
This framework has been developed over the course of 8+ years working in coffee and is backed by dozens of experiences working with real-world clients.
The Coffee Marketing Pyramid
Abraham Maslow is famous for formulating the “Hierarchy of Needs”, a framework for understanding what people need to feel productive, healthy, and fulfilled. For someone to reach the highest levels of satisfaction (self-belonging), they must start at the very bottom of the pyramid where physiological needs are met (shelter, food, and water). According to Maslow, you cannot skip stages of the hierarchy. You must meet your most foundational needs first before you can move up the pyramid.
Coffee marketing works the same way. There is a set order of marketing to-do’s that demands the following.
Take the right steps, and you can travel up the pyramid to marketing that works (and long-term business success). Try skipping building your foundation, and your efforts to reach the higher levels of the pyramid inevitably fail.
The pyramid shapes up like this:
- Level 1: Your Brand Essence
- Level 2: Your Brand Messaging
- Level 3: Your Marketing Strategy
- Level 4: Your Marketing Tactics
If I had a dollar for every time a new coffee roaster told me they didn’t know why they weren’t selling much coffee with their clever tactics, but they “hadn’t really thought too much” about the very first level of the pyramid…
There’s no avoiding it. The Coffee Marketing Pyramid isn’t optional. And understanding how it works is often the missing piece to the puzzle of building a strong business.
Level 1: A Strong Brand Essence
Why are you starting your coffee business? What was the ‘aha moment’ that inspired you? What’s the deep-seated passion or mission you’re on?
This is the intangible spark, the essence for why you exist.
It all starts here, no exceptions. Everything you do, from marketing to hiring to product creation—it all flows from this point. It’s the clay you’ll shape into messaging, strategy, and tactics.
You’ve already had this spark. Something has triggered you to start a business. But things go wrong when you don’t identify what that trigger is.
When you can’t identify the compelling why, you can’t turn it into powerful messages that resonate with your customers. And that’s how we end up with a sea of coffee websites, Facebook ads, and social media pages that look nearly identical to each other.
Trust me, that’s not a fun sea to go swimming in.
Two Ways to Identify Your Why
There is a (deceptively) simple set of questions I love to use when I interview founders in coffee who are struggling to capture that why.
- Who are you fighting for? Picking a type of person or group to be a passionate advocate for gives you a north star. “These are my people, everything I do is for them.”
- What are you fighting against? Combatting some enemy—stale coffee, unethical sourcing, greedy corporations—builds bonds between you and your people.
When you put these two things together, you have (1) a person you can passionately relate to and (2) a common enemy you can fight together. It’s an immutable law in branding and marketing: everybody needs to fight for something. Those who stand for nothing, gain nothing.
If you’re still really struggling to identify your core values, but you’re already in business, take 15 customers you think will give you honest feedback and ask them what your values are. They’ve been around your business for months, or possible years—they’ll have absorbed what’s important to you over time naturally. Listen to them.
Level 2: Brand Messaging
Your brand essence is like playdough. It has shape, but it doesn’t mean anything to onlookers. If you want people to notice it, you must give that essence meaning.
In my experience, this is the most challenging and least understood level of the Coffee Marketing Pyramid.
I’ve heard this more than a few times…
“We know what we stand for, can’t we just experiment with some ads now?”
You can, and you might get lucky. But unless you’re an unusually crafty wordsmith, it’s extremely difficult for most business owners to turn their passion into marketing language without deliberately sitting down and creating that language.
After all, it’s not enough to have a strong brand essence—your customers have to be able to understand and relate to it.
I recommend creating a Brand Messaging Guide for your coffee business. Think of it like a visual branding guide, except instead of your logo and colors, it features your core marketing messages.
This is a living document that captures your brand essence, story, values, and a few other helpful bits into something actionable. Whenever you start to write your website, an ecommerce email, or a paid ad, you can pull it up and re-align with your brand messaging quickly.
Starting to Create Your Brand Messaging Guide
Setting up guardrails in your messaging helps you stay focused and on-brand. Here’s what I like to include when creating these guides with clients.
- Mission and Vision — You probably have already written these statements and stored them away in a dusty business plan. Pull them out and revisit them.
- 3-4 Core Values — Identify the things you stand for, causes you’re passionate about, and injustices you’re fighting. Reach into your brand essence, don’t make stuff up. Write a sentence or two explaining why these values are central to your brand.
- Brand Narrative — Build a story around why you launched your company or your big mission. Keep it as concise as possible (300 words or less!) so you can easily translate it to different marketing mediums. Here’s how to create a brand story.
- First Impressions — How should first-time visitors feel about your shop or ecommerce store? Write down those feelings and emotions.
- Tone and Voice — Identify a few adjectives that describe how you should sound to visitors, as well as things that don’t describe you. Bonus points if you can write a single sentence as an example for each of those.
- Why People Pick You — Lay it out plain as day. Why do your customers pick you over your competitors?
So you have a document full of words. Now what?
This guide isn’t just for internal use. You’ve written out the exact marketing language you can use in social media captions, website copywriting, emails, and beyond. You never have to start from scratch when creating a marketing message ever again—draw inspiration from this document directly to infuse your mission, values, and story into everything you do.
There are a handful of other elements I like to include, but this is the meat of the Brand Messaging Guide. Do this, and you’re already in better shape than 95% of coffee businesses.
Level 3: Marketing Strategy
It’s finally time to think about how to connect your brand to your target audience.
Everyone loves coffee, but with so many competitors out there, it’ll be the people who feel hyper-aligned with your story and values who become your raving fans and keep your business afloat—these are the people you want to optimize for.
Your strategy shouldn’t be generic, because your brand isn’t generic.
This is why your marketing strategy should feel like a natural extension of your brand essence and messaging.
If your brand story revolves around paying your baristas a living wage, you’ll probably want to leverage a strategy that heavily integrates personal stories and passions from your team. If your brand mission is to rid the world of stale coffee, your fiery attitude will likely thrive where drama generates clicks—email and paid ads.
At a high-level, these are some of the marketing approaches you can take:
- Social Media Brand-Building — The most well-understood strategy for coffee shops and cafes is building brand equity and name recognition using social media. Social media isn’t always a great way to generate sales per-se, but it’s great for nurturing a loyal following. To build a brand following, you need that brand messaging that people will connect with.
- Email Marketing — Collecting emails, either in-store or on your website, then sending periodic emails to connect with and engage those followers, is one of the strongest, most measurable ways to generate business. If you don’t have a strong sense of brand, your emails will feel bland and sterile. Yikes.
- Content Marketing — Creating content gives your customers a way to learn and explore alongside you. Sometimes it’s educational, other times it’s just goofing off on TikTok. The point is to strengthen the connection between you and your customers by creating things (videos, blogs, etc) that build trust and good memories. There are a bazillion content-creating coffee companies out there—you need clear brand messaging to stand out.
- Paid Advertising — Paid ads for coffee roasters are an expensive path to travel, the learning curve is sharp, and there are a thousand other brands selling coffee similar to yours. Ad spend without a very compelling brand message is basically lighting money on fire.
By stitching high-level approaches together, you create a system for customer acquisition and retention. For example, using social media to brand build, inviting those people into your email ecosystem with email-unique content, then using email marketing to convert those followers into customers.
At every stage of the journey, if your customers lose connection with your brand, they’ll drop off. You have to keep your brand mission and story front-and-center the entire time.
If you’re not leveraging a unique story, perspective, mission, or values to stand out, your marketing will be handicapped right out of the gate. Good brand messaging enables good strategy.
Level 4: Marketing Tactics
Finally, the fourth level of the Coffee Marketing Pyramid is the day-to-day tactics you use to execute your strategy.
The growth hacks, the SEO keywords, the specific hashtags, the discount codes, how you write ecommerce product pages—when backed by a solid foundation of brand messaging and strategy, every one of these things will be exponentially more effective than they’d be if you just skipped straight to tactics before building your pyramid.
It’s pretty easy to see who thought they could skip Levels 1-3.
Let me show you an example from the holiday season of 2020:
Java Pura might be a fine company. They might be the best coffee roaster to ever bless the face of the planet. But by this ad, you’d never know. You wouldn’t really know anything about the business. There’s no story, no wooing, no vision to connect with.
Utopian Coffee is a mission-driven coffee company with receipts to match their efforts. They very clearly want to target conscious consumers who want their purchases to reflect their values of doing good. Even though the ad doesn’t get very precise about the good being created, it’s just clear enough to signal the right people.
The same kind of examples are true in blog content, website copywriting, social media posts—literally everything.
Coffee brands that let their brand story drive marketing stand leagues above the rest.
Resources on Tactical Coffee Marketing
- Erica Escalante’s Instagram Tips For Coffee Shops Are Gold
- Open Idea: Hack Growth With Local Partnerships
- 7 Coffee Ecommerce Marketing Strategies That Are 100% Free
- The 3 Things Every Coffee Ecommerce Page Needs
- The 7 Ecommerce Emails That Sell Coffee On Autopilot
- Bulk Cold Brew Coffee: 4 Coffee Shops Share How To Get Started
Hey 👋 I'm Garrett Oden
Freelance Coffee Marketer
I'm a coffee industry native who works with coffee brands around the world to create and execute captivating marketing strategies.
Recurring revenue from subscriptions can make or break a coffee business. But subscriptions aren’t very sticky. Membership are.
I interviewed Jeremy Teff about his process for designing captivating coffee packaging and branding, and how to stand out in a competitive market.
The coffee writing and content creation rules I always follow to build content that’s interesting, unique, and converting.