The ‘authentic’ romance of coffee advertising grinds on

No bed-haired, bedraggled addicts here: the marketing of caffeine fixes is as smooth as ever

Journalists and people who work in the media drink more coffee than any other professional group, according to a recent UK-based survey of 10,000 people; and any suggestion that it’s the antisocial hours, the daily stresses and the drowsiness of an increasingly sedentary occupation that are to blame for this shameful drug dependency is, well, probably quite accurate, actually.

Pressat, the company that published the survey, certainly pointed in that direction, pondering whether it was “being overstretched or working late” that pushed the workforce to consume more caffeine. Overall, some 70 per cent of respondents across all professions admitted that their working ability would be affected without a daily dose. This very sentence is fuelled by Arabica.

But like an alcoholic who says she drinks vodka straight from the bottle because she likes the taste, let’s pause to consider the other kind of caffeine consumption – the coffee imbibed not by frazzled, sleep-deprived people but by indulgent aficionados. This is the kind of coffee drinker that marketers like and, some might say, create.

From the 1980s soap opera of the Nescafé Gold Blend couple to the continental larks of George Clooney's Nespresso oeuvre, coffee drinking in the above-the- line advertising world is largely a romantic affair (at least it is for Nestlé). The main difference is not that one is instant and the other is capsule coffee, but that cafetière-deprived Gold Blend neighbours Sharon Maughan and Anthony Head took six ads and five years before they finally got around to kissing, while right from the first frames of the Nespresso ads, the joke is that Clooney is in love with himself.


There is no before-and-after in Nespresso ads. George does not initially appear bedraggled or dishevelled only to miraculously transform, one medium-strength espresso later, into the type of suave monster who can get away with wearing a polo neck. From the outset, he plays the Hollywood star, a little corporate, a lot conceited, and intent on flirting with half the women in Europe. But the women are invariably so sophisticated, by virtue of their coffee habit, that his star wattage means nothing to them. They’re all in the same Nespresso club.

These colour-coded pods are not a fad, and Nespresso’s imminent retail expansion in Ireland – it is due to open a standalone outlet on Dublin’s Duke Street – is not an anomaly: competition in the global market for capsule coffee is heating up. Clooney, whom the company describes as “the perfect personification of the understated elegance and authenticity”, is still collecting cheques for its European ads.

And authenticity is the other major theme of coffee marketing. The out-of- home sector tends to live by the rule that, if consumers are told which precise field in Ethiopia the beans come from, it will magically enrich the taste for them. A golden-hazed shot of some roasted coffee next to some hessian sacks is the standard visual shorthand here, as is an appearance by a grower, barista or both.

Independent roasters and cafes, meanwhile, favour word-of-mouth marketing via the age-old hipster network. Here the addict's relationship with their coffee is, of course, unique and highly knowledgeable. But the general trend is for lightly roasted coffee that makes a virtue of a sour, acidic taste, as Observer writer Jay Rayner wrote in a forensic analysis of the gourmet London coffee scene earlier this year.

Maybe some people genuinely like it that way – Rayner made it clear he didn’t. But under the philosophy of hipsterdom there is a right way and a wrong way to consume everything, and the current “right way” for coffee is to keep it bitter and challenging. The world explored by Rayner was one of uncompromising “coffee people” who dismiss Nespresso machines as “microwave dinners” and always, always drink it black.

It probably won't come as any surprise to any such self-regarding connoisseurs that Starbucks, in its latest campaign, neither mentions nor shows coffee. It doesn't have to – it's Starbucks. Instead, its new advertisements return to a more social theme, as a series of text messages and Google searches are typed out ahead of a date. This is romance 21st century- style, and coffee presented as social glue.

Time was when wine snobs safely outnumbered coffee snobs, George Clooney advertised Martini and journalists were known to be heavy drinkers of alcohol. Now it's regarded as a sign of intelligence to have an opinion on the nuances and "tones" of your roast and frowned upon to knock back absinthe at your desk. Just don't expect to see any bed-haired cranks incapable of small talk in coffee advertising anytime soon. People can handle only so much reality.