CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/COFFEE SHOPS - US coffee shop culture stirs up the UK high street. Ads are the latest weapon in the UK's ongoing coffee chain wars

Nowadays, beans means business. High-street coffee shops have sprung up all over the UK, creating a whole new market that would have seemed inconceivable a couple of years ago.

Nowadays, beans means business. High-street coffee shops have sprung up all over the UK, creating a whole new market that would have seemed inconceivable a couple of years ago.

According to research, London alone could support 1,500 coffee shops.

There are only half that number in the city at the moment, so the choice and the competition is only going to get tougher.

More British people are happy to cough up nearly pounds 2 for a cup of coffee every morning. And then there's the lunch break, the shopping break and the mid-afternoon lull - all of which are, apparently, crying out for a cappuccino.

Starbucks, Costa Coffee, Aroma, Coffee Republic, Caffe Nero and a host of smaller players have all spotted the opportunity and are battling for prime locations as they fuel the growth of the coffee society. The chains are doing everything they can to win the accelerating coffee wars, including price cuts, novelty drinks, relaxing surroundings - and advertising.

Coffee Republic is the latest coffee chain to seek out an advertising agency (Campaign, last week). The other three big names have already been using press, poster and in-store campaigns to help them stand out from the competition.

Aroma, which is owned by McDonald's, appointed BMP DDB last year. So far, its advertising has been low-key because it does not yet have enough locations to justify a major campaign, but its marketing manager Richard Scott-Clark is committed to advertising in the long term.

'With the amount of competition out there, you have to advertise or you'll get left behind,' he says. Aroma uses the word 'aromatherapy' in all its ads, positioning the chain as somewhere to relax away from the hustle and bustle. 'We are a British chain and we take the confusion out of coffee,' Scott-Clark adds.

The Whitbread-owned Costa Coffee and the US giant Starbucks are the two biggest players in the market. Costa Coffee, which reported an 8.3 per cent sales increase in the second half of 1999, plays on its Italian heritage by adopting the language and colours of its country of origin. The advertising, by Mother, uses colourful Italian design to brighten the chain's image and attempts to re-inject the 'Italianness' into words such as cappuccino and latte.

The company spent around pounds 400,000 on advertising last year.

Robert Saville of Mother says: 'Coffee was all getting a bit brown, so we went for beautiful, classic, uplifting design.'

Starbucks, the biggest advertiser in the category, spent around pounds 500,000 through Fallon in the past 12 months. Nikki Crumpton, a planner at Fallon, describes Starbucks' strategy as a mission to 'democratise great coffee'.

Despite the cut-throat competition, all the chains have adopted a similar basic strategy in their campaigns. Coffee-time is wrapped up with romanticism.

That US ideal - personified by the cast of Friends hanging out in Central Perk, or even Frasier expunging his neuroses in Cafe Nervosa - has a lot to answer for.

The advertising approach is therefore universally 'softly, softly', as the coffee sellers recognise that the sort of 'in your face' tactics used by fast-food chains would alienate the average coffee customer.

They want to be lulled into a coffee shop, not goaded into a caffeine-frenzy by loud ads.

The coffee-break is a precious, relaxing moment in the day. 'We have to be cautious,' Scott-Clark says. 'Customers appreciate a more subtle approach.' Aroma's advertising uses lines such as, 'Hot chocolate. Best served chilled' to tap into the mindset of the harassed consumer who is taking time out from a busy day.

Starbucks has additional reasons for needing amiable advertising.

It became the focus of the anti-capitalist protest in Seattle last year, when demonstrators vandalised branches of the chain. And in the Austin Powers movie, The Spy Who Shagged Me, a Starbucks shop is used as the headquarters of the villain, Dr Evil.

The US chain's entry into the UK market also came by way of an aggressive business deal. Starbucks bought up the Seattle Coffee Company wholesale and overnight its 60 shops were rebranded under the Starbucks banner, leaving loyal Seattle consumers feeling invaded.

Crumpton explains Starbucks' response: 'Our ads are trying to set up a dialogue with people, using a gentle, jokey tone of voice. We want the consumer to get to know Starbucks.'

Fallon's most recent advertising campaign was a typically self-effacing effort that promoted Starbucks' summer drink, the Frappuccino.

It showed pictures of people enjoying the cold coffee drink in traditional British summer weather - the pouring rain.

'Creativity with coffee is a very big part of Starbucks' ethos,' Crumpton adds.

With all the coffee shops selling essentially the same product, putting a twist on the basic cup of coffee is an established tactic to help a brand stand out from the competition.

The ambience of the stores is also an important part of the way the brands communicate with their customers. Costa goes for the lively, smoky Italian atmosphere while Aroma cultivates a slightly Mediterranean feel. Coffee Republic has a clean, functional style and Starbucks, with its no-smoking policy, wants to create a laid-back, comfortable environment.

But don't people just go to the nearest coffee shop? Obviously, convenience is a factor, which is why location is so vital, but customers do tend to shop around before settling on a favourite coffee destination.

The growth of a coffee society is, according to Crumpton, part of the feminisation of social space. It is part of the same phenomenon as the rise of the Slug & Lettuce and All Bar One pub chains, which are driven by the demands of women.

Noisy, smoky pubs are a turn-off for many women, who would rather hang out in clean, comfortable spaces. Coffee bars are the perfect place for a treat.

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