The cost of a good coffee

McDonald's coffee advert in The Metro
McDonald's coffee advert in The Metro

This advert has been bugging me for a while. As every good caffeine addict knows, espresso is a method of brewing a coffee, rather than anything to do with the type of coffee being used (check it out on Wikipedia or even better, The Oatmeal if you don’t believe me!).

Therefore this McDonald’s press advert doesn’t say an awful lot about the coffee, it’s a bit like saying “our sandwiches are made with handcut bread” or “our burgers arrived in a truck”. I appreciate the process of making something can affect the taste, but in this case it doesn’t say anything about the uniqueness of the coffee.

In this day and age, when every high street has three or four chain coffee shops and (hopefully) a couple of independents, it’s really important to stand out from the crowd.

Coffee is big business. The mark-up on a cup can easily be 2,000% or more, so it makes sense for any restaurant, even a chain as big as McDonald’s to be pushing premium coffee.

In 2010, McDonald’s was reported to be the biggest seller of coffee in the UK. But to maintain that position it needs to attract new audiences, pull people away from competitors. These ads don’t do that job effectively. The DRIP framework provides a good structure for creating effective adverts for this purpose:

  • Differentiate
  • Remind
  • Inform
  • Persuade

The key points here are differentiate and persuade.

First, McDonald’s need to differentiate its coffee from the competition. Why should a Starbucks/Costa/Nero fan defect for a competitor? We can look to the 7Ps (Price, Product, People, Place, Promotion, Process and Physical Evidence) for some clues – they’re not all relevant, but price, product and promotion are certainly up there. Arguably, this ad is about the product, but it’s not enough. Anyone can get hold of an espresso machine, it still takes skill and good quality beans to make a good coffee. Some testimonials would be good (imagine if McDonald’s could claim “eight out of ten people preferred our coffee to Starbucks'”?).

Persuading people to switch can be even more straight forward. A good price point could be enough for people to try an alternative. Temporary promotions might work, but are more likely to get existing customers to upgrade and include a coffee in their order. McDonald’s uses Rainforest Alliance beans, (certified as from sustainable farms). This might appeal to more conscientious customers to make the change (Although concerns about the Rainforest Alliance might actually put the concerted ethical shopper off).

It might be argued that this is a small advert, there to create brand salience (a back of the mind understanding that one can buy a decent coffee from McDonald’s) as much as direct sales, but if advertising isn’t working as hard as it could be, it’s wasting money.

This ad smacks of not being thought through properly, either that or the coffee just isn’t that good. Either way it’s not persuading me to make change my habit.



  1. Hi Sam,

    Interesting article. I do want to address your comment about the Rainforest Alliance. The article you pointed to (from 2007) criticizes Rainforest Alliance certification for not providing farmers with a minimum price for their coffee.

    I’m sure you have heard the saying “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.” This applies to Rainforest Alliance certification – which does not guarantee a minimum price but emphasizes improving farming, rather than alternative marketing schemes. The Rainforest Alliance teaches farmers to farm smart with a farm management system, growing their bottom line and conserving the fertile soils and natural resources on which their children will depend. Any farmer’s success depends on crop quality, productivity and cost control. The Rainforest Alliance program addresses all of these. The program is a hand up for those who need it, not a hand out. It gives farmers more control over their own futures and empowers them to be better business people. Higher prices are important, and most farmers in the Rainforest Alliance certification program are getting significantly higher prices for their goods. But farmgate prices are not a panacea. The system that is putting an emphasis on price is missing a number of other critical elements that influence whether or not farmers get out of poverty. We see many farmers earning high prices and still failing. Successful farmers learn to control costs, increase production, improve quality, build their own competence in trading, build workforce and community cohesion and pride, manage their precious natural resources and protect the environment. This is what Rainforest Alliance certification focuses on. Happy to supply more info if this is of interest!


    1. Hi Anna,

      Firstly, thanks for taking the time to comment on my blog – I really appreciate people taking the time to do so.

      The point was somewhat tangential to the main topic., it wasn’t meant to be an attack on your work, just address the argument that ethical credentials sometimes attract controversy as well as praise.

      I’m not entirely sold on the RA approach. The analogy you use is apt, but it isn’t infallible: if you teach a man to fish he may well be able to supply his own food, but if the only lake he can access is being trawled daily by a fleet of corporate fishing boats, he’s going to struggle! Farmers in the West might have perfected many of the skills you’ve discussed, but they often struggle to meet the prices set by the big supermarkets, and so profits drop, or governments must provide subsidies. If legislation in coffee growing countries does not prevent purchasing companies setting a price, they will do so at a level that suits them – ethics don’t come into it, it’s just business. Any small farm, no matter how efficiently run, cannot buck that trend, as competitors will undercut them.

      I agree that farmers need to have the skills to ensure that their businesses have longevity and are run in a sustainable way, but I also think they need assistance to group together and have price stability. I’m not close enough to the industry to know if FairTrade or similar organisations do that effectively, but I do think that a free market could easily crush these small holdings.

      Let me get one thing clear – from everything I’ve read, it seems like Rainforest Alliance are doing really good work – there’s nothing worse than seeing a good cause split apart by ethical organisations infighting about how best to do things.

      Thanks again for taking the time to write – I’d be happy to discuss further.

      Best wishes,

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