How do you drink your coffee, if that is, you do? The answer to this question will almost certainly depend on where you live across the world and which culture you grew up in.
If you are an American, you have probably become accustomed to grabbing a take-away coffee on your way into work. In Italy, by contrast, this would be viewed as a sacrilege. This is a country where coffee should be consumed standing up at a local café.
Rituals matter and companies ignore them at their peril when they try to create new brands. THP learned a very valuable lesson about this just over a decade ago when we tried to develop our first coffee drink, Café VIP.
I always think it is worthwhile highlighting failures. As a company, we believe that they provide us with valuable lessons, which help us to develop even better products the next time round.
Failures should, therefore, not be acknowledged and even celebrated as an essential part of the R&D process. So I would like to mark World Coffee Day on October 1 by explaining how and why THP got it wrong with Café VIP. It is also a wonderful opportunity to celebrate Vietnam’s coffee industry since we are the world’s biggest producer of Robusta coffee beans.
Vietnam has a thriving coffee culture. And as in many countries, there are strong traditions surrounding the kind of coffee we like to drink, where we drink it and when we drink it.
The most famous Vietnamese coffee cà phê đá is produced from coarse Robusta beans that are slowly released through a drip filter called a phin cà phê onto ice or condensed milk. This is particularly popular in Ho Chi Minh.
Other parts of the country also have different traditions. In Hanoi, for example, people like to drink cà phê trứng, which is made with whipped egg. In Hue, the local taste is for salted coffee. There is also a Vietnamese tradition of soaking half a toothpick in fish sauce and then dipping it into the coffee.
But one thing the Vietnamese share in common is when and where we like to drink coffee – sitting on a small stool, gossiping with friends, reading a newspaper, or watching the world go by. Coffee is a social activity at all times of day and night.
This ritual is as important as the beverage itself. And it is why we did not get two of the 4Ps (product, place, price and promotion) right with Café VIP. The market did not want a ready-to-drink (RTD) bottled product even if it was made with high end beans from Buon Ma Thuot, the Central Highlands city famous for its coffee production and cafes. Product and place were not quite aligned.
So far, Vietnam has not been a place where bottled coffee is a big success. We discontinued Café VIP after six months in 2010. It was the right decision and one we made quickly to avoid incurring higher sunk costs. Other brands from Switzerland’s Nestle to Japan’s Aginomoto have gone through similar experiences.
This does not mean that bottled coffee in Vietnam will never be a success. Consumer tastes do change even if our love of coffee itself will not.