Failure is a part of doing business. After a certain amount of time operating, you’re bound to fail and that’s okay. Failure can also be used as a learning experience. Earlier this year, I asked my followers if any would be interested in talking to me about their coffee marketing failures – big or small. I was curious to know if people jumped on marketing trends or invested too heavily in a new product. This Q&A series is titled “Coffee marketing failures and their lessons.” 

What if you can’t afford to fail? Failures can cost a lot of money, especially for small businesses. As a solution, you learn from other small businesses’ failures to inform your own decisions. Always keep in mind that their failures don’t mean they’ll become your failures. Every small business is different – successes and failures are never guaranteed. 

For this first Q&A installment, I interviewed David Yake, co-founder of Camber Coffee in Bellingham, Washington. Camber Coffee is a roasting company @cambercoffee and a retail cafe @camberholly. I’ve loved Camber’s coffee for a long while now. Every coffee I have had from them is consistently beautiful. Their Instagram aesthetic similarly matches with a stunning mix of environmental and people scenes.

We cover two failures here: one when David was working at a second-wave coffee roaster and another when Camber announced a new drink. This interview has been edited for clarity and is not a full transcript.

Jenn: Tell me about a marketing failure in coffee that you’ve done.

David Yake (DY): When I saw your [Instagram] story, the first thing that came to mind is a really short story from a few years ago. When I was working for an old-school, family-owned roaster, there wasn’t a whole lot of structure behind any marketing efforts or brand identity or anything like that. There was a roasting team and some delivery drivers but no marketing department or anyone who had any marketing experience (evidenced by the fact that I was involved with it at all). We were working with a couple of different designers on a possible new brand identity. We’d paid for a few different new logo pitches.

David was in charge of managing the business’ Facebook page at the time. This was pre-Instagram. The Facebook page was only about one to two years old.

DY: We were trying to decide between these two different logo variations and I decided it would be a good idea to put them both up on the business Facebook page and ask for feedback. It turned into a total shit show where people had really strong opinions. People were like, “Why are you changing? Are you under new ownership?” The students [said it’s] “such a corporate move” and people who’ve been following the company for years were really upset. And then one of the designers chimed in with “the other design looks like crap” and started talking shit about the other designers.

I ended up just taking it down after the other employees were like, “What are you doing?” They [said], nothing can be done about it. But what are you thinking? You should’ve run this by someone. It all happened quickly, all of this went down in an hour or two. The other designer with that we ended up going with was kind of hurt that we put their work up without asking, which was totally valid. It was just – everything they could have done wrong went wrong. 

If you’re questioning something, run it by someone that you respect and ask. That never hurts.

J: Well I’m glad you were able to hire the designer even after pitting the two against each other.

DY: He actually is a close friend now. [We’ve hired him] for a bunch of different projects for almost a decade now.

J: So it eventually worked out in the end.

DY: Yeah. There wasn’t really any serious damage I don’t think. What’s funny is it can seem so catastrophic in the moment – anything brand-related – but in the grand scheme of things, I’m sure no one remembers that except for me and maybe a couple of old coworkers who were really upset.

J: Well, I mean, this sounds like it took place in a time when people also weren’t paying as much attention to what they typed online.

DY: I think that Facebook for business was still so new that I think a lot of people like myself instead approached it like it was Facebook for regular people, you know? Which is kind of silly in retrospect, but I also was 22 or something and didn’t really understand the way the Internet worked.

J: Okay. Well, thank you for sharing that one. Was there another one that you wanted to talk about?

DY: Not really a failure, but definitely an interesting example of trying to navigate social media. Very recently for Camber, we ran a drink special last winter that was a really delicious drink. It was actually during St. Patty’s day. So it’s kind of like Irish cream. Mince forward. It was delicious, though. It was a creamy drink that was sweetened, I think our lead barista Gloria created it. But we decided to call it the Old Gregg. The employee who was managing our social media for the cafe posted a funny caption about drinking Bailey’s out of an old boot.

Here’s the mentioned post. The drink menu (PDF) describes it as “house-made take on an Irish Cream, made with rum extract and heavy cream, paired with our chocolate sauce and Big Joy espresso. Do you love me?”

And my business partner was really thrown off by it and was texting me when the post went live on Saturday morning, like “What is this?” He wasn’t familiar with the meme or the video. And so he had no frame of reference – “Why are we talking about drinking things out of shoes?” and “This is really gross. This is so off-brand, what are you thinking?” I was actually traveling at the time, so I had just approved it very hastily cause I thought it was funny. But it just shows that it was important for me to look at that without the context of knowing about the video and thinking it was funny. We should have run it by some people who weren’t familiar with it.

But on the flip side, we got an overwhelmingly positive response to that post and also to the drink. I don’t think it had any negative impact on the drink sales or how people perceived it or enjoyed it. So I think if we could go back, maybe we would change the caption slightly but I think we would do it again. You know you never want to gross people out, but at the same time you can’t play everything completely safe. Certain people got really excited about that post and were commenting and sharing it way more than most of our posts that are just like, “This is a pretty drink. Come enjoy it.”

J: So you would just change the caption, you wouldn’t change the name? 

DY: No, I don’t think so. Cause at the end of the day, Old Gregg isn’t a disgusting name. It’s maybe not the most appealing name. But if you don’t know about the video, I don’t think you’re going to be completely turned off by that name as long as you don’t talk about drinking Bailey’s out of a boot. Now granted, my business partner might disagree with me.

J: That’s interesting. What I was thinking for this series, I was wondering if people had tried to jump on trends and then had the trends just fail, like canning cold brew or making their own milk. That kind of stuff that you would see trending around the world, but it turns out it wasn’t good for your business or your customers.

DY: It goes back to having a balance of perspectives within a company and a balance of opinions. And I think that’s why it’s so important to have people from different backgrounds involved in the company. Cause if you have all really aggressively go-getters – for lack of a better word – daring, risk-taking types, then you’re for sure going to do all sorts of stupid shit like that.

Within our company, I am sometimes more of that personality, whereas Andrew, my business partner, is much more level-headed and even-keeled. Not about to jump on a trend. He’s much more focused about just roasting great coffees and making sure that our operations are really tight.

J: Well, thank you for taking the time to talk to me about your failures. I really enjoyed learning about what went wrong for you.

Some takeaways from this interview include:

  • Run new ideas by someone you trust
  • Don’t put the new staffer with no marketing experience in charge of your social media
  • Balance your team with different marketing types
  • Examine new marketing ideas and strategies from a variety of perspectives, not just your own

This is a first in an ongoing Q&A series, “Coffee marketing failures and their lessons.” I welcome any stories you might have to share from your own experiences. Contact me for an interview! I’m happy to keep interviewees anonymous, too.