Competitions and Competitiveness

What it Means when Baristas Compete

By Tracy Ging

“What’s the deal with barista competitions?”

That, it seems, is a common question from some members of the coffee industry. Many people know what the competitions are, they understand how they work, but all-in-all, they find that the whole production resembles a Christopher Guest movie—while they have a general sense of the attention and excitement that the events generate, they don’t fully grasp the significance.

Part of that confusion may be because much of what occurs with barista events happens behind the scenes, and before and after the competition themselves. Barista events are, yes, places to show off skill sets, build a sense of pride, and get people excited, but they are much more than what they offer at face value. For starters, the competitions have garnered a substantial amount of press attention and most recently, media coverage for the World Barista Championship exposed the competitions to a potential audience of 56,825,000 people.

After Michael Phillips was named the 2010 World Barista Champion, SCAA issued a press release. Yahoo! news picked up the post. Their site receives 56,825,000 visitors per day. From there, a host of publications latched onto the story, including business journals in Austin, Boston, Phoenix, Orlando, Charlotte, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Nashville, Cincinnati…you get the picture. Then there were stories on BBCtv, in the New York Times, in Business Week, special appearances, local media coverage, bloggers, trade publications, and so on. People love coffee and as such, the media loves coffee.

From Doug Zell’s perspective, the founder and CEO of Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea, that kind of visibility can certainly support a company’s brand and sales strategy, but it also has an elevating effect for the entire industry. “We want to elevate the conversation and encourage people to talk about coffee the way they speak of food,” he says. “Competitions represent a longer-term opportunity for specialty coffee to do that.”

Whether conscious or not, I do think some people become anxious about the concept of competitions. The basic idea of winning encourages a binary response—win or lose, good or bad—that can spark resistance. But that really isn’t what’s been set up here. In a New York Times blog post, Oliver Strand presented the World Barista Competition as analogous to the World Cup or World Figure Skating Championship. I’m not sure if the latter example is my favorite analogy, but it does suggest a recognition that competitors are of a certain caliber. If the media understands they’re watching the best of the best, by default they are setting up the simple idea that in coffee, good can be better and better can be best.

In that regard, barista competitions are a tool to promote what “bestest” coffee is all about—how exciting and special exceptional coffee and preparation can be. It is an extremely cost-effective media approach, while at the same time, provides recognition for talented and dedicated coffee professionals who often go on to become some of the most engaged and effective ambassadors we could possibly ask for as an industry. In a multitude of ways, the competitions invite coffee drinkers to think differently about their daily choice, which is the longer-term opportunity.

But beyond big press, there are more salient and immediate points for café operators to consider as competitions represent an opportunity for them to distinguish themselves competitively. I will never forget meeting someone for the first time at an event in Los Angeles and as I explained my work, she told me all about her favorite coffee shop, Coffee Klatch. I asked her what she liked most about them and she said, “well, they have all these trophies and awards on display and I figure if they take their coffee that seriously, it must be good.” I know some might shudder at the simplicity of that logic, but that was her impression and it stuck.

Whether or not that anecdote provides evidence, it did cause me to consider the alternatives. Why else would people believe a certain establishment serves better coffee than another? Certainly not because they say so—words like gourmet, premium, quality, and even specialty to a certain degree, have been overused almost to the point of meaninglessness. Is it because the coffee tastes better? Perhaps, but we know taste preferences develop at different rates. When coffee was really bad as a general rule, it was easier to make that distinction, but now that the differences are subtler, it’s risky to rely on taste alone.

So how is quality conveyed? It seems many in the industry have defaulted to a Semiotic approach, stringing together words and images that symbolize or suggest a certain meaning. Red cherries, faces of farmers, lush forests—these are common symbols in coffee designed to convey a quality of practice so it isn’t much of a stretch to think of trophies, awards, and certifications as similar tools to convey another aspect of quality, one of preparation. In so many ways, a barista competition is just an extension of an existing technique but in this case, it is the sound and ceremony of coffee being prepared, faces of baristas, and lush signature drinks that symbolize quality—baristas focused on creating quality coffee and a quality experience, to convey their knowledge of coffee to the work, and to be the very best at what they do. The trophies on the walls, the world-wide media coverage, the opportunity to explain to customers just what “the deal” is with that barista competition thing—those are all semi-invisible, yet incredibly important, effects of the events. For a café operator, it’s a chance to build an association with that excitement, to position themselves as quality purveyors, as experts in preparation, as an establishment excited about what they have to offer, and win or lose, one that takes their coffee seriously.

With more than 15 years of marketing experience, Tracy Ging has spent the bulk of her career in the coffee industry, where she has worked on both sides of the supply-chain, developing a deep understanding of the market and the trends driving it. Tracy currently serves as Deputy Executive Director of SCAA.