Flat white gets some curious publicity…

The beverage trade’s reaction to the launch of Costa Coffee’s ‘flat white’ drink has been more intense and more varied than anyone expected – but it has served a very good purpose for the hospitality trade, bringing the speciality-coffee trade into the general spotlight at just the right time. The UK barista contests are now in progress, and this is the year that the world speciality coffee-making championship comes to London… as a result, this is thought to be the ideal time for the catering trade to promote coffee quality.

The drink which has caused all the latest fuss is the ‘flat white’. This has been widely trumpeted by the two biggest coffee-house chains, Starbucks and Costa, as a great new drink – Starbucks was actually the first out with the drink by a couple of weeks, but only did so in London, whereas it was Costa which stole the headlines with a fully national launch in the last week of January.

This is where the fun really began…

First, a flat white is by no means a new drink. It certainly first came into the general spotlight at a trade conference early last year, when it was suggested as the next stage in espresso-based drinks. However, it has been made in Australia and New Zealand for many years, the Antipodean-owned and influenced coffee shops in Soho have had it for a long time, and even the chain Muffin Break has said that it has been selling the drink in the UK for eight years.

It is generally accepted that the flat white (or ‘flattie’ in Australian!) is a drink which takes skill to make, and when well-made, is an exceptionally satisfying coffee drink. It uses more espresso coffee than a cappuccino or latte, and does so in a smaller size than those drinks are generally served in Britain, and uses very creamily-steamed milk, which is a knack in itself.

Although it was the Costa launch which successfully drew most attention, that was not necessarily for the right reasons.

The chain had picked singer Peter Andre as the personality to star at the launch event, he being generally seen as an Australian – although he is not, having been born in London. The event was unintentionally torpedoed from the very beginning when, it is reported, a PR agency issued a series of demands to the tabloid media which forbade any reference to the singer’s widely-reported love life, and included the requirement that ‘photographs of Peter Andre must be accompanied by positive text/captions/headings’.

The Telegraph’s online riposte was to produce a picture which was deliberately captioned: ‘the bad pop singer Peter Andre’ and followed with a spoof interview about his love life and its relationship to coffee.

At the same time Costa produced information which said that ‘the Flat White is a rich, creamy full-flavoured coffee with a velvety texture, made from the purest extract of the coffee bean’, which led to some puzzlement in the coffee trade, over how the purest extract of any coffee bean is identified. Costa then said that the launch of the drink followed more than twelve months’ research, involving the training of 6,000 baristas, at a cost of over a million pounds.

It was observed by the coffee trade that Starbucks had previously made the equally-unlikely claim that its baristas had taught themselves to make the drink following requests from customers, and that education in the making of the drink was anyway already readily available from a number of barista trainers.

Costa then went on to say: “our unrivalled coffee expertise and highly skilled, talented baristas make us unique in our ability to offer an authentic flat white”. This, unsurprisingly, drew immediate reaction in the coffee-trade press and internet forums.

One writer, whose posting suggested that he or she might be a Costa employee, said that inter-company communication and training had had mixed results : ‘some people have worked hard at making a go of it (with honestly tasty results), and others have tried to hide under a carpet hoping it will go away.’

There have been other curiosities – one piece of press material suggested that the flat white uses three espresso shots in a 30ml measure, which would be interesting (we think it should be 340ml) and in Design Week magazine, the people who created the poster said that a flat white uses only a single shot of espresso, which is an equally surprising observation.

It just goes to show that PR work on a subject like speciality coffee is a minefield!

However, the one thing that has to be acknowledged is that Costa, as ever, did show the way in marketing a new item on its menu. The chain’s point-of-sale work was, as always, spot-on – posters and A-boards were out very early on the launch day, reportedly throughout the UK, and their literature used some very good product descriptions, such as the phrase ‘creamy, not frothy’, and they have a clever marketing line in ‘we make it better’.

Irrespective of who made a flat white first, or who makes it better, and irrespective of unfortunate incidents with celebrity endorsers, Costa has shown the way in drawing attention to speciality coffee, in this important year.


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