“Have the Chinese beans arrived?”
Yes, you know… the
Chinese beans.” The furrowed forehead,
pursed lips, and far-way stare told me that Lee didn’t know. In fact, Lee (the name on his Starbucks’ badge)
had absolutely no idea what I was talking about.
“Chinese coffee beans,”
“Ohh! I see! Coffee beans!”
Lee’s eyes beamed with pride:
“They’re not here yet, but they’ll be here next week. It’s really exciting, I’ll show
you.” With that, Lee literally ran toward
I was still trying to work out what he would return with
when, as quick as a flash, he re-appeared with a sticker that showed a brightly coloured bird. The drawing looked like
a cross between a chicken and a peacock, but I guessed it was meant to conjure up notions of a bird of paradise and all the
exotic imagery that goes with it. Above the chicken’s
head were the words – written in the kind of soft typography you see these days in corporate end of year reports to
help soften the hard blow – “South of the Clouds”.
“I guess the beans are from Yunnan,”
Lee looked at me as if I were some kind of soothsayer.
“That’s amazing! How on earth do you know?”
“Well, I’ve been there several times so I know that it’s mostly very
sunny and that yun nan means ‘south of the clouds’. I also know that coffee is
grown there. But, to be honest, the main reason I’m so sure is that I’ve also read about
Starbucks getting beans from there. The story has appeared in quite a few foreign newspapers.”
“Really?!” said Lee, clearly pleased that Chinese coffee beans had, at last,
bounced on to the world stage.
But why, I wondered, had it taken so
long for Starbucks to spot the quality-potential (not to mention the marketing and PR potential) of Yunnan coffee beans? Yunnan, after all, produces about 30,000 tonnes of coffee beans a year; of which 70 per cent is exported. Nestle, apparently, has been buying Yunnan coffee beans for ten or more years – or as least as long as Starbucks
has been in China.
The answer – according to the
China Daily and others – is that “Starbucks has been working for three years with farmers and government officials
in Yunnan to look for coffee beans that meet its strict standard”.
I don’t doubt this, but I’m
not a great believer in coincidences either.
In 2008, Starbucks’ global net profit reportedly
fell more than 50 per cent year-on-year. 200 stores
in the US (where is has 11 thousand of its 16 thousand stores) have closed in the past 12 months; and its global expansion
plans have been recently cut back.
Could it be that, these days, China – where it has 350 shops in 26 cities
– has been getting more of the company’s top execs’ share of mind? If it has, it’s
not hard to imagine that they have concluded that the great hope for their business is China, where the coffee habit here
is still in its infancy; and that one of the barriers to growth is negative PR.
The PR disasters of its very own “water
gate” (the company’s former global policy of keeping a tap constantly running in all of its stores was widely
reported here) as was the Forbidden City “incident” (when, following a reported public outcry, it was forced to
withdraw from one of the bastions of national identity).
There is no doubt that the huge amount of positive PR they’ve received
here in the past few weeks has gone down well and has pushed them that bit closer to their ultimate goal of making China their
number one market.
It has been a great week too for Yunnan coffee. What’s the betting that,
when Nestle and other bulk buyers next come calling, they will find it that bit harder to drive a hard bargain. After all, they now have Martin Coles, president of Starbucks Coffee International, fighting in their corner:
"The essence,” he said recently, “is about how we create a presence
of Chinese coffee in the world. I hope one day when I walk into a local store in Washington, my barista behind the counter
would ask me to taste the South of the Clouds blend and tell me the story of the village from which it came."
Any story of Chinese brands going out there, and winning battles in the international
arena, is bound to be widely reported here. Likewise, any brand that fights on their side is also likely to enjoy good
press. So, talking up Yunnan coffee is also good for the brand
that has obviously invested a lot of money, energy, and brain-power in the plan.
“South of the Clouds” is just one example of how companies are thinking
differently about their marketing in China and leveraging innovative ideas (instead of “business as usual” marketing
spend) to meet double-digit growth targets.
I’m looking forward to sitting down with some “bai ling”
(white-collar workers) next week to talk about what they think of China’s very own coffee. Not to mention
sampling the brew myself. In the meantime, I’ll
have to settle for the Colombian coffee of the day and a muffin...
But, what’s that? Today’s
special isn’t just any muffin...
It’s a “Mandarin
cranberry muffin” no less!