A Whole Lot Can Happen Over Coffee

Not many outside India will have heard of Cafe Coffee Day, but India's beloved CCD enjoys far more popularity than even Starbucks among its billion-odd citizens. So, to learn about the passing away of CCD's founder, VG Siddhartha, was quite a shock to everyone. While no one can really unravel the entire story behind his suicide, I think reflecting on a few things I learnt from his work would be a better way to remember the man.

One of CCD's biggest successes was the brand itself. I'm not talking about the logo or the typeface. It's what the brand symbolised. In a highly price sensitive market like India, CCD was among the few that convinced Indians to open up their wallets. In the late nineties or the early noughts, spending one hundred and fifty odd rupees for a cup of joe was unheard of! In all fairness, a cup of joe itself was largely unheard of. South Indian eateries prided themselves over their tiny steel tumblers of strong filter kaapi - which cost about one-tenth the price of a latte.

However, unlike a tiny tumbler of coffee from a local darshini (which I still enjoy), a CCD cappuccino associated the patron with a certain level of success and status - it became a symbol of elevated class and affluence among a growing urban Indian middle class demographic. It wasn't the coffee itself - time was the actual product being sold. Local eateries had a very transactional approach. You went in, bought your food, ate it quickly and left. As a pioneer of cafe culture in India, CCD showed Indian consumers that spending hours over a pricey cup of coffee in a swanky ambience was the new normal. Be it a date, an interview, a pitch meeting or even a casual hangout with some mates, Cafe Coffee Day was the place to be in the first decade of the new millennium. As more affluent and successful customers began frequenting the cafes, the aspirational middle class were only drawn in larger numbers to move in their circles by association.

Another great marketing tactic was the plan to locate CCDs along national and regional highways - either as standalone cafes or as large kiosks attached to fuel stations. This was a huge boon for commuters for reasons beyond good coffee. Finding clean restrooms along highways was a major pain point - not to mention finding one in a safe location, which was especially a serious inconvenience for women. CCDs chain of locations along these motorways not only resulted in increased business, but also in gaining the goodwill and appreciation of scores of travellers. Many drivers even began mapping their route on the basis of the number of CCD pitstops along the way.

CCD, in many ways, was a precursor to a lot of other movements in India - international QSR chains (McD, KFC), pubs and even premium cafes like Starbucks or indie cafes. I don't think a behemoth like Starbucks could have successfully navigated the Indian market without the groundwork laid by CCD. In fact, Starbucks derived its Indian identity from CCD - Starbucks was just a slightly more expensive CCD. The growth of CCD was the kindling that sparked a new paradigm in urban India.

This was but a small peek into the Cafe Coffee Day story, aptly described by their famous tagline - a lot can happen over coffee.