Are celebrity endorsements hurting the coffee industry?
Anay Mridul assesses the relationship between celebrities and coffee brands, exploring whether enough is being done to ensure they leave a positive mark on the industry.
At this year’s Specialty Coffee Expo in Boston, among the thousands of baristas, roasters, and industry professionals, there was a standout attendee: American NBA star Jimmy Butler.
The 32-year-old Miami Heat player was there to promote his coffee brand, BigFace, which launched last year. Through its partnership with ecommerce platform Shopify, it sells specialty coffee blends, RTD cans, and branded merchandise.
“We just want to shake up this whole coffee space and do things differently,” Butler said in a recent interview.
BigFace’s arrival on the scene follows a growing trend that has witnessed an intertwining of celebrities and coffee companies. What started off as trickle has steadily become a deluge, as celebrity-owned companies – such as Butler’s – and ambassadorships become increasingly widespread.
Last year, for example, US coffee chain Starbucks partnered with pop singer Taylor Swift to release a range of limited edition drinks to promote her new album. This followed the launch of Hugh Jackman’s coffee brand, Laughing Man, in 2011, and the opening of Machine Gun Kelly’s coffee shop, 27 Club Coffee, in 2020.
But as the pace of celebrity involvement in the coffee industry accelerates, many have started to question their long term impact and whether they have the potential to solve some of its most deeply entrenched issues.
One of the most famous coffee-celebrity endorsements is, without a doubt, that between Swiss coffee capsule manufacturer Nespresso and US actor George Clooney.
Since 2006 – the year Clooney first appeared in a Nespresso ad – the company’s stock among coffee drinkers has soared, with an estimated 14 billion Nespresso capsules sold every year.
While Clooney is reported to have made upwards of $40 million from his relationship with Nespresso, celebrities are particularly eager to partner with coffee companies because of their universal appeal. For most people and markers, it’s not a controversial product. Furthermore, it aligns with the notion of a health-conscious lifestyle.
Even in the age of “cancel culture”, there’s little danger of public backlash for celebrities endorsing coffee products. On the surface, people love coffee, so selling it is a potential marketing master play.
However, Clooney’s relationship with Nespresso questions these assumptions. In 2020, when Nespresso faced allegations of child labour, Clooney said he was “surprised and saddened”. He promised that “work will be done”, but the allegations left a bitter taste in the mouth of the coffee community and George Clooney fans alike.
These kinds of public relations blunders are certainly possible, as this incident proves. But there are many other examples that have been purely positive. For American actress Grace Hightower, for instance, starting the Coffee of Grace brand was her way of contributing to Rwanda’s economic recovery from civil war and genocide.
Largely, however, the celebrity-coffee connection is purely commercial. It’s an excellent marketing strategy that seems to work more often than not, and for the average coffee consumer, the association with prestige may be enough to sway their purchasing decisions.
Not all lights and cameras
Coffee is a commodity that is increasingly under threat. Although it may seem that the industry is constantly expanding, many coffee species are facing extinction due to the harmful effects of climate change.
Furthermore, producers around the world are finding it more and more difficult to cope with rising production costs and the threat of pests and drought.
The pandemic has only served to make the situation worse. In that sense, celebrities can and do help to popularise and promote efforts to mitigate the damage. At a time when the global coffee reserves have fallen to their lowest in 20 years, causing prices to soar, celebrities could put the spotlight on farmers and help them obtain their fair share of profits.
For the average consumer, seeing their favourite celebrity promote a specific coffee product can help grow their general interest in the industry. Additionally, many of these endorsements are increasingly associated with claims of sustainability and community development.
In a world where consumers are more and more concerned with the effects of their purchasing decisions, these messages need to be amplified. Celebrity endorsements are one possible solution.
There is certainly plenty of evidence of this already. For example, Marley Coffee, owned by Bob Marley’s son, Rohan, was founded to create jobs in Jamaica, while US roaster La Colombe, in partnership with Leonardo DiCaprio, produced a coffee blend in aid of his foundation’s environmental wing.
But as seen with Clooney and Nespresso, it’s not always that simple. Indeed, when it comes to the real, human impact of celebrity forays into coffee, there is certainly room for improvement.
Ultimately, for brands, putting a famous face to their product can serve to amplify their message, whether it’s about sustainability, transparency, flavour, efficiency, or all the above.