NEWS ANALYSIS: Coffee wars set to spill out onto the UK streets - With pitches currently underway by the two biggest coffee shop brands on the high street, PRWeek looks at the impending coffee war

Villiers Street in the West End of London. It runs between the Strand and the River Thames. At the north end lies Charing Cross station, and at the south Embankment Underground. In between lies a microcosm of the coffee war, which is now being fought on UK turf.

Villiers Street in the West End of London. It runs between the Strand and the River Thames. At the north end lies Charing Cross station, and at the south Embankment Underground. In between lies a microcosm of the coffee war, which is now being fought on UK turf.

On this street, Starbucks, Costa, Coffee Republic, Pret a Manger and EAT lie cheek-by-jowl with numerous other small coffee/sandwich bars.

Each competes for a slice of the coffee market, conservatively estimated by Mintel to be worth pounds 78m next year (Coffee Republic chief executive Bobby Hashimi says the market is already worth pounds 500m in the UK.)

Furthermore, smaller, family-run businesses are fighting for survival, as a number of them are being snapped up by national and multinational coffee chains and turned into trendy but generic cafes.

There is an army of coffee evangelists busy converting a nation of pub-goers and tea-drinkers into experts on the finer points of coffee grinds and milk foaming techniques.

The good news, on Villiers Street at least, is there seem to be enough customers to go around. But giant coffee chains aren't satisfied with 'enough' customers - domination of the market is the name of the game.

In the PR world, the two largest players - Costa and Starbucks - are both on the hunt for new PR agencies. Competition between the chains is more bitter than an under-roasted coffee bean - it shows from the way the PROs talk about their rivals.

Although neither would probably admit the PR repitches are because the stakes in the coffee battle are heating up, it can't be denied that these companies are taking a good look at the messages they are putting out to the public.

As the phenomenon of coffee stores doesn't look like going away in the near future - with everyone from Marks & Spencer to Wimpy trying to get in on the game - each coffee chain must look at how the public perceives it. How it can be the dominant player in the coffee store world? If phase one of the coffee invasion was education, phase two will be brand-building.

Even though Costa is larger than its American rival and was established long before, it has in recent years lost a lot of ground to Starbucks.

Costa marketing director, Laurie Morgan, explains Costa's plan of attack as reinforcing the brand's Italian authenticity. 'Everything we do is Italian,' says Morgan.

The advertising is already trying to achieve this - it focuses on the Italian words which surround cafe culture. But Morgan thinks the UK still has a lot to learn about coffee, and that looking towards Italy - rather than the US - is the way to do it.

Costa has also improved its range of food, with Italian sandwiches and pastries.

Starbucks, which entered the UK market in 1998 when it bought the Seattle Coffee Company chain, has a PR campaign that focuses on getting journalists to experience Starbucks. It also has an ongoing programme of product launches - Caramel Macchiato, Eggnog Latte, the Frappuccino - which is all very PR-able.

But when it comes to coffee, is new product development an area where innovation is really a selling point? Afterall, the spiritual home of coffee (and certainly the starting point of the way other European countries drink the stuff) is Italy. And in Italy a macchiato is a shot of espresso with a touch of foam - not a long milky drink flavoured with caramel!

In terms of PR, Starbucks also comes in for the most flak in the debate about large corporations putting small firms out of business by opening up on every corner in every city. Added to the fact that it is seen as being something like the McDonald's of coffee stores and its PR efforts must go beyond merely building a brand and having credible coffee. It must also look at issues management.

Starbucks marketing director Helen Benedict explains the chain's philosophy.

'It's about our passion for coffee, as well as people - both our partners and our customers,' she says.

'It's also about our place - that's what makes the Starbucks experience,' she says, referring to the environment of Starbucks' stores, down to the artwork on the walls.

Smaller rival Coffee Republic is focusing on its positioning right now.

Marketing director Simon Lambert was hired in the summer, and is looking at the company's media image, graphic and store design.

According to Lambert: 'Our aim is to be the consumer's preferred choice of coffee bar. That means being the place that, given a choice of convenient locations, consumers prefer to spend their increasingly precious time.'

With 75 stores in the UK, Coffee Republic is far from being the biggest.

Lambert says the chain is developing plans 'to take our message to a wider audience'.

On top of the issues of authentic coffee, and which chain serves the best latte, as coffee stores become listed companies, they are also looking to the City for financial PR assistance.

Coffee Republic has hired Buchanan Communications to raise its profile in the City, after it switched from AIM to a full LSE listing.

It seems highly unlikely at this stage that the British public will ever completely forsake their pints for flavoured cappuccinos.

But as the scene on Villiers Street is replicated throughout the country, it is certain the coffee chains will be calling more on PROs to knock the froth off the competition.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in