Serving up cups of branding confusion. A Coffee People example

At Portland Airport recently I decided I needed a coffee, so I hit up the nearest coffee shop because hey, there is no point shopping around, in general US coffee is as bad as their beer.

Anyway, after I had bought my crappuccino, I noticed the sign for the Coffee People shop I was at.


Coffee People - Good Coffee No Back Talk?
Coffee People – Good Coffee No Back Talk?

I was rather taken aback by the sub-head “Good Coffee – No Back Talk”.

Since when has “back talk” been a problem at a coffee shop?

Are baristas talking behind my back? They don’t even know me.

I didn’t bother to ask the cashier, mainly because like the rest of the employees he was dressed in a tie-die shirt for some unknown reason.

So I checked out the website, and was left even more confused about the branding.

Coffee People Website

Coffee People Website

From a branding point of view these guys are a hot mess.

Yes they are bold, but they seem to be more like a rebel without a cause.

Fortunately, I discovered that in 2006 Starbucks bought out the Coffee People chain, and thank God converted all the locations to Starbucks.

Except of course for the Portland airport locations, where the Coffee People brand is still alive and serving up cups of branding confusion, when all we want is a cup of coffee.

I never thought I would say this, but thank you Starbucks for restoring some sort of branding sanity.


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Categories: branding, International Marketing, Marketing Strategy

Author:Chris Maloney

Chris is a multi-channel marketing strategist and one of Australia's most awarded young marketers.


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16 Comments on “Serving up cups of branding confusion. A Coffee People example”

  1. January 17, 2011 at 2:22 pm #

    Starbucks, despite having some pretty bad coffee, is really good at atmosphere and psychology.

  2. January 17, 2011 at 3:14 pm #

    I agree Magnificent! There are some marketing geniuses at Starbucks…and I have abused their free wifi on more than one occassion

  3. BC
    January 18, 2011 at 6:54 am #

    So… It’s always interesting to me to see “fashion do’s and don’ts” — e.g. red carpet fashions at the Oscars and so forth. As judged by the experts, I guess, because I’m usually only about half right — err… — half of my opinions match the “experts”.

    I’m just some guy and I look at some outfits judged “don’t” and like them, sometimes just because they’re different, I suppose. And when THEY judge some wacky dress as “do” because it’s different, why is that more correct than my opinions?


    So… I’ll offer no opinion whatsoever about Coffee People’s branding but can’t hold back from a few comments.

    First, you’re preferring cookie-cutter Starbucks branding over this unique look. I’m a Starbucks customer, so not poo-pooing them at all, but let’s face it, not very out there. And there are those who do dislike Starbucks because it is… whatever… cookie-cutter, over-saturated, over-rated (in the minds of some), etc.

    Points given to these folks for what we marketers typically like to celebrate — a distinctive look, tone, and manner.

    Second, you say “serving up cups of branding confusion, when all we want is a cup of coffee” but… well… “Coffee People” isn’t straightforward enough for you? Bet they didn’t need to invest as much marketing $ as Starbucks to connect the word Starbucks to coffee (and, chuckle, the money they are NOW spending to distance it! :).

    Finally, you went to their website… Why, exactly? For a coffee joint…

    As marketers, we see the world differently and on occasion we need to see things through the eyes of the typical consumer, methinks…

    • January 18, 2011 at 2:09 pm #

      Don’t get me wrong I am all about being different. Hell, the slogan at the last company I worked for was “determined to be different”. But it has to be difference with a purpose…wearing tie dye shirts for no apparent reason doesn’t make sense…I mean nothing in their branding says they are hippies. However, on the Oregon coast I came across a bakery called “The Greatful Bread” and they were wearing tie dye shirts…now that makes sense.

      The brand name “Coffee People” is straight forward and it would have been great if they left it at that. I went to their website to try figure out what was going on at that place…maybe they would have explained the tie dye shirts and the “no back talk” philosophy…but no.

      As a coffee consumer I was confused, as a marketer flabbergasted

  4. BC
    January 18, 2011 at 3:28 pm #

    Again, as a marketer you’re spending time over-thinking it and you/we simply cannot be simple consumers anymore…

    I spent years in the world of point-of-purchase displays and every time I went to the store I was looking at material choices, construction methods, and other similar stuff. (Drove my wife bonkers…)

    So let me get this straight — exposure to their retail presence drove you to their site… Hmmm… Some might call them geniuses by virtue of that alone! 🙂

    Didn’t like their shirts because you couldn’t rationalize them in context of a brand strategy that makes sense to you? And if they were wearing simple (unmemorable) black shirts, you would have been okay with that?

    So now I’m wondering about how successful they were pre-Starbucks — according to your story, Starbucks bought them for their locations but curiosity getting the better of me as I think I’m going to see if I can find out how well they were doing — just for the fun of it…

    My point, however, is that passing judgment on what we see requires a basis for evaluation and until we can include sales and profitability in our analysis, opinions are built on our own preconceived notions and biases about “good branding.” And we need to be careful about that…

    • January 18, 2011 at 4:00 pm #

      My guess is they probably were successful, and had great locations, that is why Starbucks bought them. But Starbucks realised (as I have) that their branding is way stronger in the mind of the consumer than Coffee People, so they reformatted the majority of their stores to Starbucks tried and true approach.

  5. BC
    January 18, 2011 at 5:00 pm #

    And thus it’s about your frame of reference.

    Starbucks would hardly have purchased them and left them branded as Coffee People. But for the sake of argument, if they were indeed successful, albeit on a smaller, more local scale before being swallowed up, does that not define a successful brand?

    Again you make an assumption about which I’d enjoy seeing the data before passing judgment — “Starbucks…brand is way stronger in the mind of the consumer that Coffee People.” Well, nationally to be sure since of course CP wasn’t ever trying to play on that level. But even Starbucks was once a uniquely local brand.

    (I can just as easily envision CP rolled out as is nationally with some article commending them on “their unconventional methods, contrarian approach to marketing, presenting an eclcetic image which stands out from the pack.” Or I can also imagine someone commissioning one of us to develop a brand “which is clearly different than current coffee shops, something irreverent to appeal to those consumers seeking something other than ‘chain coffee'” — and ending up looking like CP! You may not like it, I may not like it, but as a distinction in that market space, maybe it works?)

    My point, once again, is simply to remind us as marketers that we need to appreciate that nothing is an absolute. Frames of reference, a basis for evaluation, criteria for defining success and understanding points in time are all factors and subjective opinions without providing these as touchpoints is nothing more than offering personal opinion.

    So much of what we do is eventually reduced to subjectivity (after all, somebody with the cash gets to make the final call) that it’s important as marketing practitioners that we don’t promote the idea that personal opinions are all that matters, and that there are objective ways to approach our discipline.

    • January 18, 2011 at 8:15 pm #

      So objectively any company that makes money is a successful brand?

  6. BC
    January 19, 2011 at 1:01 am #

    Nicely done! I’ve painted myself into a corner where I can only say “yes.” 😮

    But I think I’m good with that…

    The purpose of a business is to make money. The brand puts a face on that business and its products (but let’s not digress into nitty-gritty definitions of “brand” – clearly just simplifying here relative to the discussion).

    While a company’s brand or branding efforts/execution may not appeal to some, if they’re making money then it’s apparently working for others, eh? So we would take issue with their branding based on what, exactly?

    To be clear, my point in this thread is simply a cautionary reminder that it’s easy for us to get caught up in our own shtick. Without any basis in fact to refer to regarding Coffee People’s success or lack thereof, we can argue about their branding as passionately as we might argue about art in a museum, but that’s about it – we’re not learning anything if we simply apply our personal perspectives, pass judgment and move on.

    For example, Coffee People’s tie-dyed shirts bothered you because you were trying to make them fit your perspective of “good branding” while another marketer might argue they made for “a distinctive look which contributes to a unique, energetic in-store experience that stands out relative to cookie-cutter, conservative Starbucks and its clones like Caribou.” (I’ve written a creative brief or two in my time… 😉 )

    And then there are those pesky customers who lack our appreciation for marketing strategy and sound branding and just thought of them as “colorful shirts”, perhaps walking away from their transactions with smiles on their faces without even realizing it, in which case I would argue “well done”… 🙂

    (And here there will be those thinking “well, all depends on your target audience, might appeal to younger folks but not sure about businesspeople…” and again, proving the point that there needs to be context in development as well as evaluation.)

    So yes, if a company is profitable, then their brand is successfully working for some audience even if it doesn’t fit a model which we embrace. Not to suggest that’s the end of the process of evaluating a brand, of course, and there’s always room for improvement of some sort, but certainly a starting point since I’m sure we’d agree that if it’s already working financially, best be careful about trying to fix it… (Gap, Tropicana, etc.)

    How was their coffee, by the way?

    • January 19, 2011 at 9:05 am #

      Ok let’s agree to disagree on this one. Based on my experience I just think they could have been even more successful if their branding was more consistent across touchpoints. The coffee was crap…but that is American coffee in general.

  7. BC
    January 24, 2011 at 11:17 pm #

    Saw this and aside from making the point that “beauty (and success and good marketing) is in the eye of the beholder”, thought it was funny that they ALSO are in Portland — perhaps it’s something in the water there?

    • January 25, 2011 at 9:39 am #

      Voodoo Doughnuts is actually a great example to put up against Coffee People. I went there while I was in Portland and waited over an hour in a line around the block to get a box of donuts…because the product is truly remarkable (cant say the same for Coffee People). The Voodoo branding is carried through everything from the spookily decorated walls and the names of the products

      Yes it is very Portland to be different…but I think Voodoo actually do it well.

  8. BC
    January 25, 2011 at 10:29 am #

    Well, the good news from all this is that you’re accepting and applying some sense of the concept of “frame of reference” in your judging…

    Product quality — great point, always the baseline and while I wouldn’t take issue with hour-long waits, you don’t actually have any objective data regarding perception of CP product quality vs. Voodoo Doughnuts. Though admittedly not really relevant to your marketing comments…

    “Based on my experience I just think…” — so you’re essentially sharing your opinion, which is perfectly fine and you’re entitled, but it’s just your opinion and others may find the unique (“eclectic”) branding interesting — and everyone is correct in the absence of other criteria since you’ve established it’s about “experience.”

    “…could have been even more successful if their branding was more consistent across touchpoints” — not arguing the possibility, just the unsubstantiated claim. You could be right though requires appreciation of current success (in some measurable form) and, well, we have none. Nor do we have their expectations to consider since, after all, it’s about what an owner is looking for that matters. If their size, sales and profitability satisfy ownership, are those owners and their concept not successful?

    FInally, I looked at their website and, well, visually intriguing and the name is clearly unique, but interestingly, the name is where it ends. Products look (and are named) pretty much without regard to the overall retail brand. “In my experience…”

    So again, in the absence of some criteria, “in the eye of the beholder…”

  9. January 25, 2011 at 3:36 pm #

    It is “in the eye of the beholder” and this is the value of a blog over mainstream media. It is supposed to be opinionated, and therefore more interesting and thought provoking to read. And it seems to be working as this post clearly got you thinking.

    If you are after something more objective check out my whitepapers or magazine articles where I dive into more objective depth on topics.

  10. Big Mike Lewis
    July 2, 2013 at 11:13 am #

    1. Coffee People is no longer the same since Starbucks bought them.
    2. Without Jim & Patty, no back talk and the tie dye make no sense.
    3. Starbucks is disgusting compared to the old coffee people.
    4. Visit Jim & Patty’s new coffee places and learn.
    5. Starbucks is in for some trouble now that there are 2 J&P’s.
    6. I’m not looking for branding…but good coffee, something 4Bucks forgot about a long time ago.


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