“The language millennials use and the attitudes they have indicate that they are deeply connected to coffee on an emotional level. For them, coffee is not just a drink, it’s an experience,” that starts long before it is poured into a mug, reveals an online survey of more than 900 millennials conducted by Datassential and released by custom coffee roaster S&D Coffee & Tea.
For many millennials, that experience starts with how coffee is grown and harvested, and as such sustainability is a major factor in their purchases, according to the survey, which focused on coffee sold at food service but the findings from which likely also apply to marketing branded coffee for home brewing.
“Sustainable sourcing is a consistently powerful term whose influence extends beyond just improved perceptions around an operation’s coffee offerings,” according to the study.
It found the halo around coffee’s sustainability extends to the establishment selling the beverage, with 45% of millennials surveyed saying they think more positively about places that offer sustainably-sourced coffee.
This beat out claims about Fair Trade Certification, locally-sourced, USDA organic and direct trade.
In addition, the survey found, more than a quarter of millennials said they would go out of their way to places offering sustainably-sourced coffee, and 29% said they would choose one place over another if it offered sustainably-sourced coffee, according to the study.
Again, these edged out other trendy claims such as from a single origin, according to the study.
As a result, coffee’s sustainability “directly impacts the bottom line,” with “the vast majority of millennials [agreeing] that they would be willing to pay a small premium for coffee that is sustainably sourced.”
Unclear definition of sustainable creates marketing opportunity
While the term sustainable clearly influences millennials’ spending patterns, its definition is not as clear with only 22% of survey respondents saying they know exactly what sustainability means and what’s required to qualify as such.
The result is a marketing term that is a double-edged sword that could either cut into the competition by acting as a stand in for several given values or cut into a company’s sales if consumers perceive the word is being used insincerely, the study suggests.
Most millennials associate the term with agriculture and farming practices, but for a notable minority it also extended to perceptions of improved flavor and aroma, according to the study.
Specifically, the study found that just over 40% of consumers associated organic with sustainable, followed by slightly more than 30% who associate it with Fair Trade Certified or environmentally-friendly harvesting practices. Substantially fewer – about 22% -- associate it with better taste and about 15% associate with better aroma, according to the survey.
Sustainability also is associated with better labor practices and social impact, but the survey found “humanity-related factors … are less compelling to millennials when it comes to coffee” than the environmental factors.
“When we switched out ‘sustainable sourcing’ for ‘ethical sourcing,’ millennials immediately understood this is a shift in perspective, going from a conversation about the environment to one about farmers and labor … and they chose ‘sustainable sourcing’ as the most meaningful by a 2:1 ratio,” according to the report.
Sustainable must be used carefully
Slapping sustainability claim on coffee will not guarantee higher sales, cautions Datassentials. In the report it warns that if millennials feel that the term is being used falsely or it is paired with conflicting messages – such as those sent by using environmentally damaging or wasteful packaging – then the young consumers will judge it “unfit” and likely not make the purchase.
“Use of coffee terms as mere labels will render them powerless to sharp-eyed millennials who are increasingly skeptical of unsupported language,” the study warns.
One way to protect against this is to pair the term with third party certifications that are already associated with it, including USDA Organic, Fair Trade Certified and Rainforest Alliance Certified, the report suggests, adding this strategy is “especially handy for those operating without a lot of excess space.”