1.     What inspired you to pursue a career that embraces marketing? 

I’ve always been attracted to the alchemy of marketing – the idea that you can transform the perceived value of something through visual and non-visual communication. The best marketing connects a product or an idea to a person via a shared value or ideal and elicits a response.

In my school years I dreamt of becoming a cartoonist before turning to Law, following the advice of a teacher who often suffered my elaborate courtroom-like excuses for why I hadn’t done my homework! 

2.     What are the biggest challenges currently facing your marketing team?

Caffè Nero is the largest independent coffee company in Europe. But despite our relative reach we operate in an environment of perfect competition where similar brands offer – in name only – the same product: coffee. Our forever-problem-to-solve is ‘how do we cut through’, ‘how do we change someone’s mind’. It’s an easy strategy If you want to be the biggest (all things being equal): spend the most and maximise your share of voice. But when your ambition is instead to be the best, then that’s much more difficult, the ambition is one that money alone can’t solve and requires a different set of tools and approach.

3.     Science vs Art: With scientific data-driven marketing at one end of the spectrum and genius creative ideas at the other - which side do you lean towards?

I’m a big believer in the proverb “trust but verify”. The genius idea will almost always arrive spontaneously, but you have to reflect on it. Give it some oxygen, share it with your team and start by saying: ‘this might be the most stupid idea you’ve ever heard, but….” This also signals vulnerability and trust to your team – it’s okay to have a stupid idea, it might turn out to be genius. 

Thinking of science and art in binary or partisan terms can be a perilous trap for marketeers. Humans don’t always behave in the linear, logical way economists would have us believe. Some of our most successful campaigns have been illogical and counterintuitive; doing only things that appear to be logical will keep you within the bounds of small incremental improvements. The basis of scientific theory is to disprove a hypothesis rather than prove one, so disprove your fantastical ideas rather than prove your sensible ones. If you want a career in sensible ideas, be an accountant.

4.     In marketing, when is it ok to rely on A.I. and when do you think you definitely ‘need a human’

A.I is an amazing feat of human ingenuity and engineering, and now has the momentum to move us from the age of information into an age of intelligence. 

What are its limits in marketing? I think about this in similar terms to the art vs science question, the copy it generates, the image it creates is rooted in the past - something that’s come before. One of my music heroes, John Cage, would actively practice the process of forgetting what he knew before composing a single note of music, understanding that he’d never create anything new if he started with something old. If your inputs are rooted in human knowledge, rather than human experience, then I also wonder how it can be made unique, authentic, own-able, and relatable. All that said, it’s a game-changer as a productivity tool for marketing and almost every other profession.

5. How is your business 'Riding the Storm' of economic turbulence and increased cost of living?

Over the decades, good coffee shops and cafes have proved to be resilient during times of economic turbulence. Often consumers will reduce their spend on takeaways and eating out, but coffee is a little luxury without the luxury product cost, relative to its value in someone’s day. The trick if there is one is to try and de-commodify your product, remove its fungibility. Make it an experience and occasion for the customer with high quality personal service. I have no doubt that for the majority of our regular customers it’s the relationship they have with their barista that makes them return – more so than the coffee. That’s something you don’t want to lose.

6. How do you adapt a business and marketing strategy to embrace the latest trends and keep ahead of the competition?

With any trend brands should make the distinction between a gusty wind and an intractable tidal wave. Pack a change of clothes, regardless! But whatever the weather you need to stay anchored to your brand values and not cede authenticity or integrity, you also shouldn’t sacrifice long-term brand building at the expense of short-term trend chasing. Think about fashion retail: fashion has a dynamic quality and is always morphing and moving, I’m old enough now to see my baggy jeans from the 90s finding prime wardrobe space again. But there’s a discernible difference between fashion and the more permanent quality of style. Don’t forget the classics: the white tee, the black dress, the flat white. Brands need permanence. 

7. What role does your company’s purpose and environmental approach play within your marketing strategy? 

Caffè Nero’s sustainability program mirrors the founding principals and purpose of the brand: ‘To Make a Positive Difference in the Lives of the People where we Operate’. This applies in three specific focuses:

People – Caring for the people who work with and for us and who eat and drink with us.

Communities – Caring for the locations where we operate, including where we source our coffee beans.

Planet – The world around us and how we impact the environment we live and operate in.

8. How important is storytelling when maximising your customers’ engagement with a campaign?

Coffee shops are often a time-poor environment; a barista’s interaction with the customer will be fleetingly short, which is why we try to utilise other brand mediums, as well as stores, to tell stories. What you want to say in storytelling needs to be compatible with what the reader wants to know – and their capacity to know it. You’re not going to get a lot of followers if all you want to say is ‘buy more stuff from me’ – even if you ask nicely.

What you say needs to signal trust and connect with a common value. The 180 hours of training required to earn a black Caffè Nero t-shirt, the premium we pay to the farmers we work with, our Master Roasters, our obsession with quality. These are all stories, signalling that if you drink coffee, you should trust us to care about you and your coffee more than any other coffee brand.  You trust us to care.

9. Creative agencies rail against the time and resource spent working on pitches to win accounts: is there a realistic, fair alternative to the pitch process?

Agencies operate in a market of risk and reward. It’s a market that regulates its own fortunes and so I’m not sure what a fair alternative would be that maintains creativity and innovation. I’m a big believer in deepening rather than diluting the relationships you have. As a small team we just don’t have the capacity to run long and bureaucratic pitch processes and rather seek out relationships with likeminded people and agencies with a common purpose and ethos.

10. From a marketing perspective, what’s coming up for your brand or business in 2023 and beyond?

I don’t think we’re going to see any reforming of pre-covid norms; people will continue to have hybrid ways of working and therefore hybrid ways of drinking coffee. From a marketing perspective we need to find that special place at the front of a person’s mind when thinking about coffee, wherever they are, whenever it is. 

11. If there’s one thing you know about marketing it is…?

That you can’t do the same thing and expect different results.

Little Grey Cells is Tim Healey’s weekly profile interview platform where leading marketers share their valuable insights and experience, presented by Worth Your While.

Outsourced Marketing Director and best-selling author Tim Healey collaborates with senior marketers to help them have more time, less stress and clearer marketing strategies through his consultancy Shoot 4 The Moon Ltd. Book your meeting.

You might die tomorrow so make it worth your while. Worth Your While is an independent creative agency helping brands do spectacular stuff people like to talk about. wyw.agency.