Liquid Thinking

Coffee pods:

From earth killers to cool, compostable credibility? 

17th May 2023

Time was that unless your home coffee machine was bean-to-cup, you’d be scoffed at. Though infinitely more accessible, compact and convenient for most people’s homes, pods were seen as being lesser quality, not to mention bad for the environment. However, in recent years there’s been an image overhaul of the pod market, with eco options, high-end producers and now, celebrities too. So, are pods finally cool? 

Walking past what used to be the Nespresso store in St Pancras station the other day, the pale pink hoarding covering ongoing renovations had a message for passers-by. It read “We’re recycling the former Nespresso store into a new and improved one that’s better for the planet”. Grind’s cheeky pod advertising has been slowly spreading across London, with slogans such as “Doesn’t come with ready-made latte art, but we’re working on it” for some time. 

Its mail order and subscription coffee business may have been born of Grind’s physical café business, but now things have come full circle. Such is the success of its pods for home coffee machines, that they now have their own store; a standalone emporium with a window filled with its upturned compostable pods, which – to really hammer home that they’re the first in the UK to make home-compostable coffee pods – are being used as plant pots. It even has the world’s first composting live stream. Who knew composting would one day be cool? 

There’s no doubt that brands such as Grind have helped to finally bring the cool factor, a fresh take, and FINALLY some innovation to a category that sorely needed it. Whereas pioneers Nespresso introduced consumers to the concept, first launching in the 1980s to bring consumers barista-quality at home, there hasn’t been much innovation in pods since. In fact Nespresso’s USP was what was at the time a premium aluminium pod, and seemingly endless coffee varietals. But with every supermarket and indeed coffee shop launching a me-too brand, it hasn’t had the edge for some time. Also, George Clooney is great and everything, but those that regard him as a heartthrob generally remember the days of dial-up internet, so…. there’s that. We’re not scoffing; we remember those days too. 

The fourth wave has to be fun

The growing affordability of machines, the increasing unaffordability of frequent purchases from coffee shops, and the shift to greater at-home consumption during and post-pandemic have all been helpful in building a bourgeoning market for pods. So beyond not killing the planet (Grind has grabbed that one) how to truly innovate?]

Like Grind, there’s a number of brands globally looking to bring a cheekier, younger and crucially eco approach to pods, and making the experience of shopping for them, way more fun. Singapore-based brand No Harm Done says its tapping into the new ‘fourth wave’ of coffee with its products. During the third wave of the 2000s, consumers became more aware of what good coffee is. During the fourth wave, with quality now a given consumers want to have some fun, says the brand, with products presented in a more light-hearted manner. New flavours are a part of this, it says.

In a brand overhaul, it replaced its western-style flavours last year, with more locally inspired and locally grown coffees with an Asian-spin. They include Gula Melaka Kopi (with caramelised coconut sugar), and Choco Kopi (coffee with a chocolate infusion). Its pods are also fully compostable. 

Uh oh, the celebs are here 

Is the true sign that a category is on the up when a celebrity arrives, much like when a Starbucks arrives on your local slightly-crap shopping street? I mean, it’s not that they’re a shining endorsement, but it does mean that they smell money. Which is good. 

YouTube darling Emma Chamberlain, has recently expanded her Gen-Z coffee brand to include pods. Surely that’s a category endorsement? Of course, they’re compostable. Chamberlain Coffee launched in 2020, but the pods were only added in late 2022. In common with No Harm Done and Grind, the packaging is bold, colourful and playful, aimed at speaking directly to a Gen Z consumer who yes, wants the best quality coffee they can get… thank you very much, but isn’t taking life too seriously.  And they want to save the planet too. Or at least, f*ck it up a little less. 

Making an Achilles heel a selling point

Turning what was once a detriment – their packaging – into a huge selling point has become a savvy talking point for these brands. Ironically, it’s something that has helped it speak Gen-Z’s (and others) language, making pods a credible way to consume coffee at-home, in a way that instant coffee has never been able to be. 

Beyond the environment, let’s not forget also that at its heart coffee is about rituals. It’s about that much needed first cup of the day, it’s about that cleansing 11 am cuppa, and it’s very much about the process of making it. Instant may be convenient, but its always lacked the quality cues of other formats. Pods not only offer a fresher product, more akin to the quality consumers have grown used to paying coffee shops a premium for. But they also more closely replicate the process of making a good coffee. Pod machines may only require you to fill them and press a button – just like a kettle, really – but their screaming, whirring, steaming fanfare as hot water is pushed through the pod somehow feels much more barista-like. 

That’s right, the success of pods is all about appearances. And now a flurry of brands have proved they can be cool, there will of course be more that follow. Expect hip, well-designed brands speaking to consumers in causal, light-hearted ways. Expect functional brands that offer more benefits beyond a caffeine hit. Expect brands that profile local flavours and preferences. Expect producers to more closely highlight their connections with growing regions, individual farms and communities. And of course, now that they’re cool, expect more celebrities to join in. 

What’s the golden rule for new pod brands looking to claim a share of the market? In the fourth wave of coffee – but arguably only the second wave of coffee pods – brands need to look good, taste good and do good, to stand out. 


Interested in finding out more about what this might mean for you and your business?

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