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What Happened to the Young Coffee Drinkers of America?

Up until a few days ago, I was under the impression that a large percentage of young adults and college students obsess over coffee. However, according to an article on MediaPost, coffee sales are dwindling among younger consumers, and marketers are encouraged to work harder if they want to sway younger coffee drinkers (aged 18-24).

How could that statement be true? I mean, I can’t recall a time during my college career when I saw a fellow student without a travel mug full of the stuff! And if coffee sales within that age group are down, then why are Starbucks lines always packed with panicked college-agers who want to score a cup of dark roast minutes before their first class?

I don’t have a definitive answer to that question, but I do have a few insights. From what I’ve seen, eighteen to twenty-four year-olds aren’t necessarily guzzling coffee because they like the taste. Many of them consume it because of the energy boost it inevitably brings. In the case of students, it’s all part of the sacrifice to stay awake during class after a late-night cram session. So, if young people aren’t drinking coffee to stay energized, then what are they drinking? I suspect super-sweet energy drinks or caffeine-loaded sodas.

How's this for energy drink variety?

How’s this for energy drink variety?

Have you been to a gas station lately? There’s a positively enormous selection of energy drinks inside the coolers. The containers are vying for attention. Each can is zanier than the next. The flavors are so diverse and tantalizing that coffee doesn’t even stand a chance against them! This gives younger consumers more of a choice, so those who are disgusted by the taste of coffee no longer have to chug it to feel an energy surge.

Sweet Coffee Drink

If young coffee drinkers want ‘em sweeter, then make ‘em sweeter!

MediaPost’s article also mentions that young adults tend to favor sweet coffee drinks over run-of-the-mill coffee, and that only “28% of young adults like the taste of coffee on its own,” which is nearly half the percentage of older age groups’ preferences. It’s already apparent that sweet energy drinks are in demand and that it’s all about CHOICES, so why not give them what they want and add more sweetened beverages to the menu?

If I were a coffee marketer and I wanted to get young people interested in coffee again, I’d make it worth their while. Try concocting new coffee drink flavors and giving away free samples on college campuses in exchange for a quick written review. Offer $5 gift cards or special coupons for taking a short survey about coffee taste preferences. Give away inexpensive travel mugs with purchases over a certain dollar amount. Or, better yet, organize a contest among the 18-24 age group to come up with a new coffee drink that every energy-drink addict in the country would scramble to try…and then let the winner star in their own commercial! If I know anything about college-age people or college students, it’s that they’d do just about anything to save a few bucks and they rarely turn down anything if it’s free. If they can get their 15 minutes of fame while they’re at it, then even better!

I understand coffee marketers’ concerns; after all, disinterested twenty-somethings will eventually turn into disinterested forty-somethings, and that could prove catastrophic for coffee sales down the road. But instead of sitting around idly while coffee sales plummet, marketers need to take action RIGHT NOW. Follow the lead of industry competitors like Mountain Dew or Red Bull and go straight to the source when you need help marketing to a Generation Y crowd!

Are you a coffee fanatic between the age of 18 and 24? Do you have any more insights to contribute to this phenomenon? Now’s your time to shine by leaving us a comment or two.

Image Credits


Jill Tooley

Jill has been obsessed with words since her fingers could turn the pages of a book. She’s a hopeless bibliophile who recently purchased a Kindle after almost 6 years of radical opposition, and she loves stumbling upon new music on Pandora. Random interests include (but are not limited to) bookstores, movie memorabilia, and adorable rodents. Jill writes for the QLP blog and assists with the company’s social media accounts. You can connect with Jill on Google+.

Comments

  1. QLP Kid

    Far too many people are drinking fruity-tooty latte frapacieno shit. We need to go back to the old days where you drink coffee to stay awake not because it tastes good.

    Speaking of coffee…I’m on my second cup!

    -QLP Kid

    “It’s How the Midwest was Won…”

  2. Bumcivilian

    Well, you certainly don’t have to worry about getting me interested in coffee, I think I was pre-disposed to drink it ALL DAY AND NIGHT. I shudder to think how much caffeine courses through my veins a day. I guess I am part of that small percentage that almost never pops an energy drink, guess I am not as cool as I thought I was. That is a good idea, though to let college kids sample coffee would work, kids won’t try it unless it’s free, especially college. Look at REDBULL they market the crap out of that stuff, they have cars that catch your attention; they even created an alcoholic beverage that college kids love.
    I think things like Starbucks and Caribou should market some kind of mixer at bars, etc… just like Redbull, That’ll get the kids attention. I even seen certain coffee brands market their own coffee/energy drink and now you are seeing those less and less, I think that is the result of not enough marketing. I never saw ads for them, and I think people were to apprehensive of what a STARBUCKS ENEGY SHOT would taste like so they went for the safe bet energy drinks that people are familiar with and think they trust b/c it is sooo popular.

  3. QLP Jill

    @Bumcivilian – I’m the exact same way. I’ve been drinking two mugs of coffee every day for the past 10 years, and I’m not about to change now. Energy drinks are hit or miss for me – either they’re WAY too sweet and taste like crap or they’re tolerable. Every time I drink one, though, I immediately regret not purchasing a regular cup of joe instead. I love the taste of coffee by itself and I don’t need 600 grams of sugar in it. But if that’s what Gen Y wants, then coffee companies need to step up and give it to them! Variety, variety, variety.

    Great idea about the mixer! Not all college kids drink every weekend, but there is a lot of that going on on campuses throughout the country. They need to get creative!

    The Starbucks Energy Shots were okay, but they were outrageously expensive and I concur that they weren’t marketed very well. That’s another thing – the 18-24 demographic is probably going to consist of penny-pinchers, so which one do you think they’ll choose: a tiny coffee shot for $3.00 or a giant energy drink for $1.50? Coffee marketers need to come up with a way to make sweeter drinks that are more affordable. I realize that’s a lot to ask, but something needs to be done and I feel that going straight to college-age kids is the key to this puzzle.

    We need to save the coffee, dammit! ;)

  4. Lauren

    I fall into this age group and feel like I may be an exception, but not for the reason of drinking coffee. I don’t drink coffee, or any of those energy drinks. :)

    But if coffee places like Starbucks do want college age people to start drinking their drinks, the key word is FREE. I have tried things that are free just to try them, even if I knew I wouldn’t like them. The second focus should be taste because no one wants to spend money on things in the future if they don’t like the taste…. No matter how much caffeine is in it.

  5. Bret BRET

    @QLP Jill – That wasn’t coffee your fellow students were hauling around in their travel mugs during College – more like Jack Daniels! :)

    I personally HATE the taste of coffee, but I do prefer it over those zany energy drinks. Monster turns my pee green! :)

    I don’t think ANYONE drinks coffee because of how it tastes, that’s what wine is for, instead, they drink it because of the caffeine, and in order to turn things around coffee makers – they need to come up with a better tasting higher energy formula. End of story.

    McDonald’s Sugar free iced vanilla coffee is my non sugared up energy drink of choice.

  6. McFly

    I started drinking coffee when I was about 10 years old (I think). I just always loved the smell of coffee, so I couldn’t wait to start drinking it. I think the smell of coffee was the best advertising for me to start drinking it (and it still works when I walk by a coffee place). ;)

  7. QLP Jill

    @Lauren – That’s okay if you don’t drink coffee. You’re not alone! Thanks for taking the time to comment anyway! :) I have also tried plenty of drinks or snacks because a direct marketer was giving them away! One was a free sample of a “cool” flavored Venom energy drink that tasted like menthol and fruit…but it was free, so you can bet I tried it! Marketers will never know how consumers feel about a product until they let them try it.

    @Bret – TMI on the Monster drink! And I’ve actually found the perfect combo as far as coffee and wine go – I have a bottle of Arabica coffee port wine at home. It’s delicious, but I bet you’d hate it if you don’t like the taste of coffee. (Duh!) :)

    @McFly – I remember thinking that coffee tasted gross at first, but that’s because my young taste buds weren’t up to par yet. Now I’m a changed woman! My dad actually admits that he loves the smell of freshly-brewed coffee but can’t stand the taste. So you see, everyone has a different opinion about it. It’s so interesting! :)

  8. Barb

    Can’t add much…I am not anywhere near that age demographic nor do I do drink coffee. But I definitely agree it was TMI from Bret!

  9. Boba Fett

    I don’t drink coffee regularly. I’ll drink it occasionally if I’m REALLY tired and need that pick me up. I’ll never been a big fan of the traditional, plain coffee taste. I can understand why a lot of people like iced coffee because it probably has like 1/10th of the strong taste as regular coffee. Coffee shops need to find a way to lower the cost of their drinks. In my opinion, the high cost of all these coffee drinks is probably what is most prohibitive to the 18-24 age range.

  10. Peter

    I hate the taste of coffee! Haha, I think that the biggest thing coffee companies could focus on though is image and marketing. Try something funky for advertising. Speak to the youth of America, mark your product as something new, edgy, or interesting, not just something there to keep business workers awake.

  11. Claudette

    I tend to think energy drinks are more intense and therefore more interesting to a younger person. Also, the cans look kind of hip. In my opinion, coffee lends itself to sipping and contemplation. Are young people more accustomed to overly sweet drinks? Maybe a gloppy mug of unrecognizable liquid covered in caramel and chocolate and sprinkles will pass for coffee, but underneath the pile of whipped cream lies the real thing. Coffee may be an acquired taste, but first you need to taste it! Some people don’t like hot drinks of any kind, but they love cold, sugary ones. I wonder if it’s a passing phase or if the crazy energy drinks have managed to win over the 18-24 year olds.

  12. QLP Jill

    @Boba Fett – Thanks for the comment and for reinforcing my statement about cost. I don’t know how coffee marketers would reduce costs, but they need to come up with SOMETHING if they want to encourage 18-24 year olds to buy coffee drinks!

    @Peter – Good idea! I talked about jazzy packaging in a previous blog post and learned that many people flock to eye-catching packages first and ask questions later. A coffee rebrand could be another possibility to reach the younger demographic!

    @Claudette – Regarding your last sentence, I think that’s a question we’ll have to wait to see answered…although, increasing numbers of kids will get turned off to coffee the longer we wait. My perception may be skewed because in this area I see tons of 18-24 year olds walking around while sipping hot drinks. Although, maybe Bret’s right: perhaps I didn’t see my fellow students drinking coffee out of their travel mugs. Maybe it was something much stronger! ;)

  13. Taylor Gauer

    Most of the times i visit a blog i get disappointed. On the contrary,I have to say that you have done a good job here.

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