Bang For Your Buck: Top Marketing Insights From Coffee Fest New York


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In March of 2023, I had the honor of leading three different panel discussions at Coffee Fest in New York. This was the first in-person event I got to attend as a representative of Fresh Cup since relaunching the website in April 2022. To feel the energy and excitement of the coffee industry was invigorating—it reminded me why Fresh Cup exists and who we publish stories for. 

The panels we led were so insightful that we wanted to share the most salient points with all our readers. First up is our panel on advertising, where we asked big questions about how to market your coffee brand in 2023 like:

  • Should you be spending money on paid advertising? Or is it a good way to light your money on fire? 
  • Is Facebook still the best ad platform? What about Instagram? And how are brands embracing platforms like TikTok? 
  • Should a company even have a paid advertising budget?

Panelists include: 

Robert Sulkow, Director of Marketing at Genuine Origin

Rob is one of the original team members of Genuine Origin, a green coffee supplier serving coffee roasters throughout the United States. Rob leads all marketing—digital and traditional, paid and organic. Rob has over 20 years of experience in digital marketing and has worked for startups and global conglomerates across numerous industries.

Anand Patel, Co-Founder of Hidden Grounds Coffee

In 2013, Anand and his team of coffee devotees decided that the world had suffered enough from the scourge of bad coffee. They took it upon themselves to become the ultimate taste testers, sacrificing their taste buds so their customers don’t have to suffer the same fate. As a result of this process, they’ve expanded their coffee business to seven retail locations.

Here are key insights from our discussion: 

Get In Your Customers’ “Consideration Set” 

Sulkow opened the panel about coffee marketing in an unlikely place: he asked an audience member if he uses the same toothpaste daily. While he says it’s hard to get people to change such a personal product preference, he encourages people to get in customers’ ‘consideration set,’ or the realm of items, products, and services they might consider using one day. People develop habits—things they know well and stick to, and your marketing budget should focus on becoming part of a potential consumer’s habit. 

“I need to stay in that consideration set every day, every week, every month—when these roasters come around, and they say, ‘I want to buy green coffee,’ I want to make sure that they’re considering Genuine Origin.”   

If you’re unsure how to get into your customer’s consideration set, Sulkow recommends A/B testing or using two different marketing strategies simultaneously to see which customers respond to. Sometimes it can be challenging to strike the right tone or speak to your target audience, so testing different strategies helps determine what works. 

Scale Marketing Over Time

When Patel opened the first Hidden Grounds location, he didn’t spend any money on marketing, focusing entirely on quality before looking into advertising and raising brand awareness. “I [got] to the point where I’m extremely secure and proud of the product I’m selling…and once you have that, marketing is one of those things where it’s the percentage representation of your total revenue.” 

I need to stay in that consideration set every day, every week, every month—when these roasters come around, and they say, ‘I want to buy green coffee,’ I want to make sure that they’re considering Genuine Origin. Robert Sulkow, Director of Marketing at Genuine Origin

Patel breaks down Hidden Grounds’ marketing budget over time: “I guess the national average is between 7% and 14% of your total revenue. But for us, in our tenth year, it’s gotten all the way to 20%.” But when Hidden Grounds began paid marketing in their second year, they only set aside 4% of their revenue. 

Around the end of the second year, Patel says that word-of-mouth marketing started to plateau at 3% of growth. Marketing should lead directly to growth, but if you’re not ready for that growth, Patel says that your marketing dollars are better spent elsewhere. Plan for the best-case scenario when it comes to marketing—if your marketing campaign goes viral or attracts hundreds of new customers, are you ready for an increase in foot traffic? Do you have enough product? 

For Sulkow, this isn’t just a theoretical concern. “Because of my marketing, we ran out of coffee. I got so many people over to our website buying coffee we actually ran out of coffee. And we were selling air.” 

Market To New and Existing Customers

Marketing isn’t just about attracting new patrons. “The [marketing] budget is dedicated to increasing the richness of the experience of the products we serve to the customers already there,” says Patel. “While searching for new customers that haven’t visited your shop, do not forget about the people already supporting you.” At Hidden Grounds, that means investing in items like gold instead of silver spoons or ensuring the glasses used to serve seltzer water are enjoyable to hold—things patrons will likely remember when talking about your business with friends or take photos of and share on social media, which can be more influential than anything marketing campaign you run. 

How do you learn more about your customers? Analytics. “I don’t think that it’s the right time to advertise unless you have some kind of measurement device in place for your advertising,” says Sulkow. He recommends linking your website to Google Analytics to track where traffic is coming from. 

Get Comfortable With Today’s Tools—Or Find Someone Who Is

Patel’s analytics indicate that 80% of customers are between the ages of 25-34, and he’s honest about the fact that fluency on newer social media platforms like TikTok doesn’t come naturally to him. He says to look within your staff—you might have someone within your organization who is not only comfortable with new digital platforms, but is also passionate and interested in them. 

While searching for new customers that haven’t visited your shop, do not forget about the people already supporting you. Anand Patel, Co-Founder of Hidden Grounds Coffee

Hidden Grounds also uses ChatGPT to generate SEO-optimized captions and ad copy. “If it’s going to account for SEO optimization already, there is absolutely no way that my human brain will be able to optimize that.” 

But advertising isn’t just about keeping up with trends: it’s about aligning your strategies with how customers consume your product. For example, Hidden Grounds gives away free drip coffee every Monday, a strategy that costs “significantly less than a budget that I would need to market on Instagram,” Patel says. “Mondays are the most dreadful days. So getting anything for free on a Monday, that’s like, ‘Holy crap, it’s amazing.’ Understanding the psychology of a human being and then marrying that in a non-traditional way is something we always do.”

But that doesn’t mean ignoring tried and tested platforms. “Some people want to move to TikTok because TikTok is so popular; it’s where the party is. But if your customers aren’t there, then who cares?” asks Suklow. If Facebook ads work, use them! Don’t feel tempted to migrate to new platforms if they don’t align with your goals and proven strategies. 

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Garrett Oden

Garrett Oden is the owner of Fresh Cup, a coffee industry publication for professionals, and Alimentous Studio, a content and copywriting agency for coffee, F&B, and food tech businesses.

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