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Research: The True Value of Specialty Coffee

by Michael Cleland

What is the true value of the specialty coffee movement?

Does the core value of specialty coffee align with the value proposition promoted by brands and businesses? And to what extent is this understood or valued by end consumers? Importantly - does further exploration identify what the industry could do better?

These are the questions that the non-profit research group, Six Degrees, at Edinburgh University is striving to answer. 

It's clear that the specialty coffee movement is resonating and having some impact. Evolving menus reflect emerging tastes, and high-street adoption of what can be defined as specialty language shows us that how coffee is consumed, communicated and perceived around the world has fundamentally shifted. 

The term "specialty coffee" means different things to different people. Ask two coffee professionals and you will get two different answers. Ask two consumers and, chances are, you'll get another set of different answers.

Does the value we're promoting as an industry match the value that's sought and understood by consumers? Misalignment here means an inefficiency which, as markets continue to become more competitive, would make individual businesses - if not the whole industry - competitively weak.

Industry-side we've continued to see an increasing number of marketing messages around pertinent conversations such as the environment and gender equity but the prevailing message from independent coffee brands continues to centre around ethics and quality.

When justifying product uniqueness and price premiums most UK brands typically communicate that they buy specialty grade coffee only, and in doing so pay more to farmers. Whether or not these promises reflect reality continues to be debated but the key point is the fundamental assumption that this proposition is unique and uniquely valuable to consumers.

Any business in the industry utilises this assumption as the foundation on which they trade - it has to be an operational reality. There's a very short future in failing to supply what's demanded, and an even shorter future when this is combined with promoting value to the consumer that's not understood.

Promisingly, recent research work by Six Degrees marks a serious leap forward in the validity and significance of the conclusions formed on a subject often hindered by significant conjecture - simultaneously opening an opportunity for coffee businesses in the UK to collaborate on research, gaining valuable shared insight in the process.

Co-director of Six Degrees, Rebecca Marcone, is leading a team of researchers at the University of Edinburgh to explore broad consumer perceptions of value. In collaboration with Assembly co-founder Nick Mabey, they have mapped inputs from roasters all over the UK against consumer perceptions of value - aiming to identify where there may be disparity.

In addition, Rebecca has written a dissertation which critically analyses how the definition of specialty coffee could be redefined. It includes recommendations for implementing governance and relevant stakeholder engagement based on her findings. 

Both the dissertation and the research project surface a number of thought-provoking insights and are available to read below.