There is no doubting that the Covid outbreak has brought about change. Good or bad, we have all had to adapt to living in a new way. It has been interesting to observe how each stage of the pandemic has brought about different areas for focus, uniting and then dividing us once more!
There has, however, been certain changes to consumer behaviour that we really hope will stand the test of time. In Spring 2020, we watched in horror as the first lockdown swiftly closed the doors of our industry. Our beloved wholesale family in hospitality and our own team at the North Star coffee shop were forced to close up shop as we waited for guidance from the government.
In many ways, this felt catastrophic. We had tonnes of green coffee that we had committed to and many of our producing partners were in the early stages of harvest for the next year with our volumes and requirements looking ever more uncertain. And then, something magical happened…
We had just about finished crisis planning for a short term closure when boom…our online shop started trickling through orders from our amazing supporters who found themselves stuck working from home without their much needed specialty coffee hit. In a short space of time, we were back up to 60 per cent of production, frantically packing 250g packs and grinding for different brew methods for the all important coffee break at home.
We never anticipated this change of events and could not be more grateful for it. It saved our business.
However, it also highlighted a fair few problems that we were going to have to resolve if we wanted to stand the test of time…
We have always focused on growing the demand for impactfully sourced, specialty grade coffee. Establishing the business in Leeds in 2013 as the first coffee roastery in the city meant we had to take an inclusive approach to what we did to develop a market for us to sell into. The growth of the coffee scene in Leeds since then has been absolutely staggering and we are so proud to have been a part of that. As we ourselves became more established, we wanted to develop our brand and offering to take its place amongst the best of the best here in the UK and further afield and we therefore rebranded in 2019.
You can read more about that process but in short, the decision was taken from a desire to improve our environmental credentials by changing to recyclable plastic packaging (which didn’t exist for coffee before this point) and to reduce our print/labelling waste by producing a sleeve (made from recycled coffee cups) to differentiate the coffee by origin. We also abandoned the kraft look of our bags in an effort to communicate the quality and expertise within our business six years into it. The result was fairly unique with a sleek, white and minimalist feel. And we were happy with it.
However, seeing our retail volume increase five fold highlighted issues we could have never foreseen when planning this rebrand.
First and foremost, it was inefficient. I know I know this was maybe an obvious one to you guys but we honestly didn’t feel it when we were packing 70 orders per week. When it came to doing that per day in the height of the pandemic it was a different story!
Next up, we realised we were acquiring customers who were brand new to the world of specialty coffee. This was amazing for us to see and very much what we aimed to achieve but in doing so, it became clear we were not approachable enough to those trying to make a decision from the 12-15 options on our website. We do not market our coffees in the same way you would find with supermarket brands – by roast/strength level. We are therefore reliant upon our customer base understanding the inherent characteristics of coffees due to their terroir or post-harvest processing and this started to cause some problems! For instance, many consumers understand Latin American coffees to be smoother and more balanced in profile than African coffees – but when you are featuring a 72hour macerated anaerobic natural lot from Honduras, this can lead to an unexpected drinking experience if you weren’t prepared for it!
Finally, despite making moves to be more environmentally responsible, we found the additional waste produced through plastic backing to labels was making it hard to ignore the amount of plastic we were reliant upon to get our coffee out to our customers.
Taking all of these factors into account, we decided to put our assumptions to the test and ask our customer base for their thoughts. We sent a survey out to around 9000 previous North Star customers to gauge their thoughts on the effectiveness of our packaging, how they used it, their feel for how environmentally responsible we were as a business and their general likes/dislikes about how it looked/felt.
The results came in and were pretty enlightening. Along with some really lovely comments, the overwhelming constructive feedback was that the additional sleeve on top of the bag gave the impression of ‘overpackaging’. Our proudly advertised ‘100% plastic’ bag was also interpreted negatively due to the widely adopted view of plastic being the ultimate no no.
Alongside all of this, the release of Vava Angwenyi’s Coffee Milk Blood and the fallout in the coffee industry following the murder of George Floyd got us thinking about our role in storytelling and BIPOC representation. In every way, we have the most privileged position in the coffee supply chain and harness real power in how we tell the producer narrative. In our view, specialty coffee businesses default to sharing the same information around altitude, varietal, washing station, location etc just because that information is accessible and useful in portraying the improved traceability in our supply chains as opposed to commercial coffee. But in all honesty, how useful is that information to the producer or the customer? Does it represent the producer in the manner they want to be? Does it tell the consumer how to brew the coffee or whether to enjoy it with or without milk? We wanted to explore a different approach.
It was time for a change…
Click below to read on!