Death Wish Coffee Goes from Small Roastery
To Amazon’s ‘Most Wished For’ Brand
By Jasmine Glasheen
In 2012, on the cusp of the so-called “retail apocalypse,” Death Wish Coffee Co. was founded in a small coffee shop in Saratoga Springs, New York. With the goal of creating the world’s strongest coffee, Death Wish Coffee’s owner, Mike Brown, experimented with Fair Trade, USDA certified organic Arabica and Robusta beans to create a high-caffeine blend 200 percent stronger than the average cup of joe.
Today, Death Wish is Amazon.com’s “Most Wished For” coffee brand. It is also stocked in supermarkets across the country, including Price Chopper, Hannaford and Shop Rite, as well as being offered in 282 Safeway locations. Third-quarter projections show Death Wish being stocked in an additional 550 stores, from Northern California to New York City. On top of all this, Death Wish K-Cups will be rolling out in 900 Walmart stores beginning June 9, 2018.
How did a small, local start-up grow such a cult following in just six years? According to owner and founder, Mike Brown, “Death Wish has an underground-like vibe, which has resonated with our fan base from the start. It has become more than just a beverage that fuels a person’s day — it has become a lifestyle. Throughout the years, our local New York following has branched out across the nation as well as internationally. Like all businesses that have followed a grassroots approach, word of mouth has been key to our growth. We leveraged social media — like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and recently Twitch — to connect with our fan base and grow the Death Wish community.”
In 2015, the Death Wish team won Intuit’s “Small Business Big Game” competition for the “Best Commercial Ever.” The prize was a 30-second commercial aired during Super Bowl 50.
Death Wish Coffee’s marketing team isn’t afraid to implement a bit of creative merchandising or philanthropy. Most recently, Death Wish partnered with Celtic rock band Dropkick Murphys in a St. Patrick’s Day mug collaboration for charity. The company donated $10 for every mug sold to the Claddagh Fund non-profit, contributing a total of $41,500.
When asked if he has any advice for young start-ups hoping to follow in Death Wish’s footsteps, Mr. Browns said, “I believe the only way to gain a large following is by being consistent. You can’t over deliver one day and then drop the ball the next and expect your customer to count on you in the future. Something I tell my team regularly is that when we find a system that works well, try to simplify it as much as possible, write out the exact procedure, and then find a way to automate it. After that, you need to prove to [customers] that you’re what they’re looking for, ‘wow’ them, and then consistently do that for the rest of eternity.”
What other advice would you add for owners launching new brands? Is waning consumer interest in chain stores creating an opening for hip young brands like Death Wish Coffee to take center stage?
Comments from the RetailWire BrainTrust:
First, a great provocative name clearly helps. In today’s market you you need to be differentiated from your competitors not just in actual product attributes but in a host of “softer” elements — style, association, image, values, partners, etc. And of course you need to know the customer. As someone who has enjoyed many Dropkick Murphys St. Patrick’s Day shows I can see how the association with Death Wish is a natural. Fans of both the coffee and the the band see themselves as bold, aggressive, maybe a little loud, independent and edgy. In short, a perfect pairing. When it comes to the decline of chains and the rise of independent brands it’s hard to say which is the chicken and which is the egg, i.e., are chain and national brands proving less popular because people value hipster brands more or are hipster brands benefiting from a general lack of innovation in the mass-brander community? In the end it doesn’t matter. It used to be having a Starbucks was making a statement. Today you make a greater statement by announcing you have a Death Wish.
Ryan Mathews, Founder, CEO, Black Monk Consulting
It’s interesting to see emerging brands gaining traction in a crowded CPG world. Albertsons is launching a digital marketplace for emerging brands. The Food Marketing Institute is launching an initiative to create awareness of emerging brands. Big Food is in the cross-hairs nowadays.
John Karolefski, Editor-in-Chief, CPGmatters
Death Wish marketing certainly helped fuel their growth. When combined with their unique product — while not the only high-octane coffee on the market, they were one of a select few — their marketing helped carve a niche that allowed them capitalize on their position as the leader in a very small category. And yes, I do think they are the beneficiaries of consumer sentiment that is migrating away from big chains, and hence worry about placing K-Cups in Walmart stores. That seems counter to their brand ethos.
Dave Bruno, Marketing Director, Aptos
Great name, optimum price, excellent storytelling and the message will develop legs. Then it’s about listening to customers as well as employees to move it the rest of the way. For my 2 cents.
Lee Kent, Principal, Your Retail Authority, LLC
Daring to be different and being true to well considered convictions will always take retailers and brands where others fear to tread. When support for the innovator or underdog is high, use that wind beneath the wings to fly higher than expected.
Lyle Bunn (Ph.D. Hon), Strategy Architect – Digital Place-based Media
Names matter. Brilliant from the start — compared to Bad Ass Coffee. Passionate owner, clear vision, knows who they are and aren’t. They didn’t need AI or predictive technology to grow as much as connecting authentically with their customers. Boutique and specialty retail is the way forward because a clear focus can cut through the clutter and noise of trying to be everyone to everyone.
Bob Phibbs, President/CEO, The Retail Doctor