Will brand giants such as Starbucks capitalise on ‘independent’ thinking?

I was talking about customer demographic yesterday, and about how McDonald’s (in the UK, at least) has managed to capitalise on a broad cross-section of society more than any other outlet I could think of.

I used Starbucks as an example of a global company that doesn’t seem to have managed the same feat, and perhaps it’s all for the better.

When I go to the US, most of the Starbucks branches I come across are generally untidy places that could use some TLC, and they’re often set up ‘to go’ rather than to sit and relax and let the pressures of the day unfold around a short cappuccino.

In the UK, Starbucks feels different. The branches seem to be larger and take into account a number of factors, such as a section for getting in and out quickly, plus a large room (sometimes two or three rooms) with various seating options for comfort and laptop use.

You could argue that the Starbucks demographic, which I officially know very little about, is quite different when it comes to the UK and the US, yet the clientele can often seem similar: business types in sharp suits, students with friends, couples, middle class families, and trendy hipsters looking for a place to chill out or work. You don’t often see children, which you’re more likely to see at McDonald’s.

Espressamente illy is another kettle of fish, being designed with white surfaces, clean lines and shiny tables. You won’t find much in the way of wood panelling here, and design/art is very much the theme this company would like to convey while you sip on tremendous coffee (I’m biased – I love illy coffee when it’s well made). Who comes here, you may ask? I look around and I see older couples (20+) and small groups of friends, travellers with suitcases in tow. It’s well lit, proud of its art and its Italian heritage, but also welcoming to its sometime technology partner Samsung. (In New York last year, I visited a Samsung popup that had an illy coffee bar in the middle, and drinks were free. Likewise, in London a few months ago, the new Espressamente had a section that enabled customers to use Samsung tablets free of charge.)

Espressamente illy at Park Plaza Westminster Bridge in London.
Espressamente illy at Park Plaza Westminster Bridge in London.

Costa Coffee is going through subtle changes at the moment, seemingly in an attempt to break the mould that’s been unashamedly copied by many other coffee shops (chain or independent). You can walk down any major high street in the UK and see identikit coffee shops that reveal a lack of originality, yet this perhaps plays safely into the hands of a certain coffee-consuming demographic.

Some independent coffee shops are trying a few different things, such as Mokoko in Bath, which is small (no inside seating) and only two or three tables outside. It’s set up for ‘to go’ coffee, yet still serves its sit-down customers with proper cups and saucers, and the cake is delicious. The proposition is simple so far: cake, coffee and croissants; the decor is simple and clean, and the bar is dominated by the large coffee machine and the friendliness of the staff. I hope winter isn’t too hard on them.

Artist's render of Mokoko in Bath.
Artist’s render of Mokoko in Bath.

This is where ‘chains’ start, just like Pike Place in Seattle, where Starbucks first proffered coffee and became the business goliath it is today. Same for Costa; everyone starts small, don’t they? So, let’s take a look at Starbucks’ new stores in its Seattle birthplace, to see how the company is stretching its European design ethos across the US.

For example, just a mile away from its original Pike Place Market location is a new store in an old bank building near a college, other restaurants, pubs and boutiques. I’m a sucker for dark, broody design that contrasts textiles such as wood with steel, stone and brick. I find it warm and inviting, and would much rather spend time working in a place like this, or entertaining friends, or simply enjoying some solitude.

Seattle Broadway Pike Interior shot of the new Starbucks.
Seattle Broadway Pike Interior shot of the new Starbucks. Photo by Starbucks.

The University Village outdoor shopping mall near the University of Washington is the location for a new Starbucks Reserve. (Did you see my video of the Starbucks Reserve in Amsterdam, where the barista Evert demonstrated the Clover Brewing System?) The ethos here is to tell the ‘coffee story’: Angled mirrors behind the bar bring light into the space and allow customers to watch as baristas create their beverages. Rich displays of coffee artefacts invite discovery and hand-stitched printed maps connect customers to the farms around the world that grow Starbucks coffee.

Leschi Starbucks branch in Seattle, with bike theme.
Leschi Starbucks branch in Seattle, with bike theme. Photo by Starbucks.

In Leschi, five miles south of the last location, Starbucks’ Seattle heritage takes yet another design turn in celebrating the community’s tradition of cycling, with a wall of upcycled bicycle tubes. This is as individual and thoughtful a space as you can get from such a massive brand, and I like it. It demonstrates that corporate brands can be just as thoughtful as independents when it comes to embracing a community ‘look and feel’, and I think it’s this strategy that will help the giants of the high street stay competitive.

What designs are you seeing in your new coffee shops, cafes and fast food restaurants in your hometown? Let me know by leaving a comment below, wherever you happen to live.


Mining social media to understand what we think about food and drink

The horse meat scandal just won’t go away, which is probably a good thing. At the beginning of last year, it was headline news for good reason, but why are we still talking about it 18 months on?

The reason is simple: we need to ensure it doesn’t happen again. As I said in an earlier blog, the crime in this case was that a nation that does consider the eating of horse meat as taboo was deceived.

What disturbed me most wasn’t the fact that we may have been eating horse meat all along, but the fact that no one told me. I’d like to have a choice over what I eat, so being honest and open about ingredients is top of my list. However, it’s only my opinion. In order to discover what everyone else thought about the horse meat scandal, researchers at Cardiff University have been busy looking at social media engagement from when the news first broke.

By analysing social media data, the researchers will discover public perceptions of the horse meat scandal for the first time, tapping into a rich vein of media coverage that revealed widespread fraud and uncovered the complexity of the UK meat supply chain and the extent of meat imports.

The project will investigate how the growing complexity of international food supply chains is giving rise to a new generation of risks and concerns.

It’s a massive undertaking, but an important one that may change the way we use social media for marketing purposes in all sorts of sectors, whether we’re mining it for positive change or for being able to sell a product in two years’ time.

The University’s Collaborative Online Social Media Observatory (Cosmos, of course) has been awarded an Economic and Social Research Council grant under its Global Food Security Programme (a joint initiative with the Food Standards Agency). The project is in collaboration with NatCen, the University of Warwick and the University of Westminster.

“Cosmos provides a unique opportunity to study the story arc of crises in unprecedented detail,” said computer scientist Dr Pete Burnap. “We have collected data from public Twitter accounts since 2012 and our database of more than three billion tweets will allow us to trace the unfolding of the horse meat scandal, pinpointing moments of escalation, de-escalation and duration.

“We can also mine the data to discover variation in levels of public sentiment and tension around the topic, as well as identify demographic characteristics of those involved and the geographic spread of the scare.

“This study will enhance understanding of the potential of social media analysis to access public perceptions and how these evolve, and to establish how social media analysis can be used in risk governance and engagement with the public about risks more generally.”

I can’t help but imagine a future of such detailed research being undertaken by the food & drink Goliaths of our day. Scratch that; they’re probably already doing it – mining our tweets and posts about flavours, regional trends and packaging choices. It’s not a bad thing. If they have the money to do it, it cascades down to those who can’t afford to do the research, which leads to more innovation and competition.

As Dr Luke Sloan from the Cardiff School of Social Sciences says, “The research will generate new empirical findings on public perceptions of UK food supply chains; what people’s concerns are, what influences these and how they may be best managed in the future.”

If the NSA can mine our data, so can we.

(My thanks to Fil Dunsky for the brilliant illustration used in this article.)

Free Evian helps Tube travellers beat dehydration

I’m no doctor, but I have known of the health benefits of being well hydrated since I had an unwelcome case of heatstroke when I was young and invincible.

I am now Chief Annoying Hydration Officer to my nearest and dearest, advocating the drinking of water to solve the many ails of the day. Here in the UK, we’re having some unfamiliar hot weather, so I’ve been particularly busy in keeping everyone up to speed on downing enough water to stave off headaches, low energy, sickness etc.

The news that Danone Waters (UK & Ireland) is giving out free bottles of water to London commuters is really great, and I applaud Transport for London (TfL) for taking the initiative. Free bottles of Evian Natural Mineral Water will be given to customers travelling on the Tube, to the tune of 250,000 bottles.

It’s all part of TfL’s ongoing Beat the Heat and Travel Better London campaign, which aims to raise awareness of how passengers can help to reduce delays and improve the environment for themselves and fellow travellers by making small changes to their travel habits.

Danone Waters has agreed a three-year partnership with Transport for London that will see additional water distribution days across the London Underground network during the summer months until 2017. The partnership will help secure Evian’s presence across London, which is also supported by its annual Live Young January campaigns and sponsorship of The Championships at Wimbledon.

It’s so easy to forget to drink water when you’re having a busy day, so try to carry around a bottle or two of the free Evian or your very own container. Need reminding? Look at tourist kids – they always seem to have a bottle hanging from their backpacks. They could teach our UK kids a thing or two about staying hydrated.

I also wrote about hydration in June, when I shared the Vittel Refresh Cap with you. Has anyone seen this bottle yet?


Starting on 19 August, consumers in New York City can use the hashtag #evianBottleService to have free water delivered on-demand to select locations throughout the city.

Evian begins its ‘Bottle Service’ for three days around Bryant Park and will continue to keep the city hydrated near select parks around the city. Exact locations and times will be announced via the brand’s social media channels.

Is the UK willing to dine on bugs?

I’m not sure about eating insects. I’m already a fussy eater, so the idea of munching yogurt-coated ants while at the local cinema just doesn’t appeal.

I was amused by a report from research specialist Canadean, which said: ‘The way the insect-derived product is presented and marketed will be key in convincing consumers to give insects a try.’

You could apply this to any food, of course, and I will perhaps unfairly bring up the horse meat scandal. If you market anything in a certain way, we’ll probably give it a go.

Spider cupcakeOh, but insects. I’ve seen them in transparent lollipops in Selfridges, more as a curiosity than a sustainable food source of the future. Yet, if Canadean’s predictions are right, and that the European Union’s $3m research investment is anything to go by, we’ll be seasoning our beetles with spider eyes before you know it, and I for one will be holding out until the very last minute before doing so. (I will also be heavily armed and protecting a house full of chocolate from other rebels.)

If it’s just the idea that’s stopping me from embracing insects as food, I should consider what ABC News apparently said a few years ago, about how an average chocolate bar contains eight insect parts, and that anything less than 60 insect pieces per 100g of chocolate is deemed safe for consumption by the Food and Drug Administration.

The Canadean research says that consumers who are given detailed, flavour-focused product descriptions are more likely to consider eating insects, with 46% saying they would be willing to try them. So, if they look like a dried-up creepy crawly, as long as the packaging says they taste like Tic Tacs we’ll be OK? I’m not so sure.

Yet, in the spirit of being positive, I’ll see what happens with the research. Let’s face it, there are almost 2,000 edible insect species, which means 40 tonnes of insects for every human on Earth. They are rich in protein, iron and calcium and low in fat and cholesterol.

“Processed insects will be an easier sell than products where consumers can see the insects in front of them,” said Canadean analyst Catherine O’Connor. “To get past the disgust barrier, insect-derived foods must have a strong visual appeal and not be recognisably bug-based.”

If they happen to be inside my jar of peanut butter without me actually knowing too much about it, I think I’ll be happy. Actually, they may already be inside my jar of peanut butter …

What happened to food & drink sales when England left the World Cup?

First of all, don’t get me started on poor team management, the rewarding of mediocrity and the instability of an autocratic football hierarchy. Let’s talk food and drink instead.

I’ve just found out that the England football team has cost UK supermarkets up to £55m in lost sales over the two weeks since they were unceremoniously booted out of the 2014 World Cup. (This is according to analysis of sales data from global market and shopper intelligence firm IRI.)

Compared with the four weeks preceding the start of the World Cup, sales of alcohol, soft drinks, bagged snacks, pizza, chilled party food and bread rolls, in the first week of matches, shot up by over £50m. After England lost to Uruguay, the sales peak of these products in the following week slumped by £38m.

So, not only did the England team fail to match our already low expectations in Brazil, they ruined the party mood so much that we decided to stop buying lots of unhealthy, yet tasty snacks and stuff just after their first game. I confess, I bought a new shirt that week instead of the usual Coca-Cola, Peroni and M&S cheese puffs (oh, they’re so good).

During the third World Cup week (week ending 28 June), after England’s Costa Rica match, sales dropped again, almost back to where they started. IRI estimates that the lost sales caused by ‘World Cup fatigue’ over the last two weeks could be worth between as much as £55m and £60m.

In some depth, here are more highlights from the IRI analysis:

  • The value growth for soft drinks reduced significantly, from 18% in week one to 9% in week two, and just under 6% in week three. Sales were £5.2m lower in week three of the World Cup than they were in week one.
  • Altogether, value sales of bagged snacks, pizza, chilled party snacks, bread rolls, baguettes, coleslaw, chilled salads and dips were £3.3m lower through the UK’s major supermarket chains in week three than they were in week one. Only sales of Scotch eggs grew, higher by almost 5% in value.
  • Ale and stout had sales volumes increase by 13.9%, the highest in sales volumes.
  • Champagne and sparkling wine continued to grow strongly, with volumes up by 13.3% and value up by 15.7%.
  • Cider maintained its momentum with volume and value sales in the last week, still up on the four weeks immediately prior to the World Cup (volume +2.7%, value +6.9%).
  • Net sales for beer, wines and spirits in week three were up by £5.7m compared to the same week in 2013. However, this was a £37.1m reduction in sales value compared to week one of the World Cup.

So, there are some positives to take from all of this analysis, such as Scotch eggs being cold comfort for our misery (who knew?) and Champagne sales increasing (I didn’t know there were so many Uruguayans in the UK). Otherwise, Mr Hodgson, you have a lot more to answer for than I first thought.

If you piled your cupboards high with football snacks and a few beers/softies, what did you get? I’d love to know what the most popular World Cup F&B brands were!

The vending machine with free Knacki Balls

If you have an immature sense of humour, now is the time to resist your instinctive urge to giggle while we contemplate a new marketing initiative in the vending sector.

We’re talking about Knacki Balls, a snack product from Herta (a Nestlé brand), and its new promotional video brought to life by creative directors Sebastien De Valck and Arnaud Pitz. Take a look …


Pitting your wits against retired Belgian footballer Leo Van der Elst looks like fun, and the video shows how much fun went into setting up this whole stunt. I’d love to see someone like Luiz Suarez do this one day (but take a lawyer with you, and some plasters).

As for the viral marketing something like this produces, even for a player many of us haven’t heard of, it’s just pure gold. And it still seems to have legs, despite there being many other examples of vending machine viral marketing over the last year or two, including Coke’s Hug Machine and the Strongbow Dark Fruit vending machine that was installed at one of the UK’s busiest train stations.

It’s been great watching the vending industry come on in leaps and bounds in terms of marketing itself, even if it’s still the big companies spending all the money.

Summer 2014 has provided ample opportunity to ride on the coattails of the World Cup with all sorts of football-related activity, and this has to be one of the more fun examples of how food and drink can capitalise on the broader socioeconomic zeitgeist.

Bowser Beer for dogs in PET bottles

You may have been reading about Coca-Cola’s launch of Life in Great Britain today, but a very different success story has been ‘brewing’ for the past few years, and it’s a dog’s life.

Bowser Beer from 3 Busy Dogs has emerged as a popular pet product that has enjoyed strong US growth. It was created in 2008 by Jenny Brown in Seattle, and is an all-natural chicken or beef broth drink that contains malt barley (B vitamins) and glucosamine for joint health. The doggy drink doesn’t contain hops, which can be toxic to them.

Bowser Beer in PET bottles from Amcor.
Bowser Beer in PET bottles from Amcor.

Sales have tripled in the last three years, and just goes to show that there’s a market for everything. It’s packaged in lightweight, shatter-resistant 12oz PET bottles (of course it is) from Amcor Rigid Plastics, which mimic the shape and colour of standard beer bottles. They are one-sixth the weight of glass bottles, unbreakable, less wasteful and recyclable, according to Kerry Drewry, sales manager for spirits, wine and beer at Amcor.

Amcor’s stock PET line for beer is also available with the KHS Plasmax Silicon Oxide (SiOx) barrier coating that seals the container from the inside to protect the contents from oxidation.

Plasmax is an FDA-compliant, enhanced passive barrier for oxygen-sensitive products. This ultrathin (less than 100nm) material is transparent and recycle-friendly.

So, don’t enjoy the 2014 World Cup on your own. Pop open a Peroni and a Bowser Beer and settle in with man’s best friend.

This is Shaun Weston's blog.