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Coffee bars’ marketing plans use stale email tactics

Peet’s Coffee & Tea
2011 net revenue: $372 million
196 stores

The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf
2010 net revenue: $230 million
350 stores

If there’s one thing that unites every overworked American, it’s love of coffee. And while Starbucks is the clear juggernaut in this field, other brands have attempted to make inroads, contrasting the fast-food sensibility of Starbucks with a more personal feel that evokes quality coffee and social awareness. Peet’s and Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf (CBTL) — both West Coast chains that began expanding East in 2010 — incorporate e-commerce, direct mail and social media with varying success, and completely muddle basic email marketing best practices. All this to send a simple message: We make really good coffee.

But it’s a message that, to Jessie Kernan, chief strategy officer at RAPP, is as fresh as the mud found at the bottom of the carafe. “The attention economics of today favor brands that connect on a more meaningful level,” she says. “[Coffee] affords such richly emotional territory for brands, but neither Coffee Bean nor Peet’s is “ … currently tapping into that emotional potential.”

Jason McCann, creative director at AKQA, disagrees. “I would say the general tone of Peet’s is handmade, earthy; we’re the little guys, we need your help to spread the word.” McCann says CBTL is more future driven, about exploring coffee and tea for new ideas, with clear social targeting “not in terms of media but in terms of coming in with your friends and enjoying a $1 latte. They understand it’s a social experience.”

Ken Fitzgerald, executive creative director at Catalyst, says he felt a genuine emotional pull toward Peet’s. The message, as interpreted by Fitzgerald, was: “We understand you enjoy coffee, we’ll establish a relationship. Let’s get to know each other. I think we have the same sensibilities.” He pinpoints a direct mail flyer from Peet’s. “It doesn’t look like a promotional piece,” says Fitzgerald. “There’s somebody I can identify with. That’s the expert. It’s Major Dickason’s Blend. It’s somebody that looks like they know what they’re talking about.” He points out the flyer is too copy heavy, which obscures the marketing coupon included in the flyer.

Kim Pick, SVP and executive creative director at RAPP, zeroes in on Peet’s ‘Office Perks’ promotion, which she feels is not only a great offer clearly written — it communicates a fun, spontaneous attitude.

While Kernan agrees that Peet’s visuals are better at communicating the premium quality of its coffee, she doesn’t feel the personable aesthetic that Fitzgerald feels, especially on the mailings. “I’d like to see both brands take advantage of the intimacy and tactile experience that can drive real impact in the direct mail channel,” she says.

Kernan’s criticism filters into her assessment of the brands’ online presences. “The funny thing about most brand websites is that typically only 20% is content and features that consumers want, the other 80% is what marketers want,” she says. “I would say both of these sites fall into that trap a little bit — Peet’s more so than Coffee Bean.”

While both coffee companies have e-commerce sites, CBTL simplifies navigation with bold visuals. Aesthetically, however, Kernan and her colleague Pick are unimpressed. Still, they prefer CBTL’s utilitarian presentation to Peet’s cluttered, text-heavy website. “It feels serious, earnest, old-fashioned,” Pick says. “What happened to the West Coast barista attitude?”

McCann saw CBTL’s sleek design as an advantage, especially compared to the visual noise on Peet’s site. “Refresh the site, de-clutter it for clarity,” McCann says, alluding to the convoluted purchasing process. “You can assume if someone’s going to Peet’s, it’s to know about corporate philosophy. They can surface that content more clearly.”

Fitzgerald differs, saying the CBTL site feels like walking into a store. “When I got on Peet’s, the focal point is ‘We’re giving back,’” he says. He noticed the awareness campaign around water in Papua New Guinea featured on the front page. “My visceral reaction, and that’s how I always and anyone in this business should judge a brand, is that Peet’s is all about legacy, heritage and really causal.”

Marketers approve of the social media presence of the brands. Both companies were active, encouraged engagement and were personal. However, CBTL’s strategy was more mature. For instance, CBTL launched its Facebook Timeline before Peet’s, which did so by default when Facebook migrated all enterprises to the new format.

CBTL also had a more engaging Facebook page. If success is measured by Facebook “likes,” then CBTL, with nearly 100,000 more than Peet’s, is the clear victor. Fitzgerald, however, wonders if the magnitude of communications worked to CBTL’s detriment. “[Peet’s] just seems like a friendlier brand,” he says. “It feels less corporate, maybe because it’s a singular person.”

Pick, noting CBTL’s massive social media push seems to have the backing of a large team, was similarly drawn to the single employee, Tina Nemling, monitoring Peet’s Twitter feed. “I want to hug Tina Nemling for her valiant effort for Peet’s,” Pick says, “and vow to follow her right now.”

McCann also enjoyed Peet’s more casual posts, but notices tonal inconsistencies. “[They are] formal, [but] then when they reply, they’re very human and warm,” McCann explains. The two tones need to be reconciled.

Kernan wishes the companies were more assiduous, deciding when to push a discussion point. “I’m not sure I’d want to engage with CBTL about March Madness picks for example,” Kernan says. She felt the brands should discuss not just popular topics, but popular topics that made sense coming from a coffeehouse. Fitzgerald also senses that CBTL tries to force customer engagement by bombarding social media followers with questions. However, he feels Peet’s does a much better job getting customers to interact without prompting. “When you look at Peet’s, it was more of an engagement with customers,” Fitzgerald says. “Customers had comments.”

On the other hand, though McCann acknowledged that CBTL’s prompts are slightly “oddball,” he feels a greater connection to the brand based on the nature of the posts. “There are more behind-the-scenes type of things,” McCann says. “There was one post that asked about specific teas. It’s more specific in the interactions.”

Neither company maintains an adept email strategy. Peet’s email was to-the-point and humorless, essentially a “web page in your inbox,” Kernan says. CBTL, however, was worse — presenting marketers with no deals or product information. In fact, during the time marketers signed up, and the time of this writing, there was no email from CBTL at all. McCann lucked into an email confirmation from CBTL and nothing from Peet’s.

Brand Champion

There is no clear winner between the reliable, but bland CBTL and the interesting, but inconsistent Peet’s. The two brands are essentially a Rorschach test for marketers. If one accepts the idea that Peet’s tries to come across as a scrappy fighter, then a small social media team makes sense. When it comes to pushing sales and driving online interactions, CBTL, blandness notwithstanding, has to be the victor. If only both brands could get their email whipped into shape.

More Battle of the Brands.

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