Profile: Creating the perfect blend

Jim Slater, marketing director at Costa Coffee, wants to recruit more customers in cities in the UK and abroad

Profile: Creating the perfect blend

Jim Slater, Costa Coffee's marketing director, will no doubt be pleased to hear that there are many parallels between him and his favourite football manager Peter Reid.

Both earned their respective spurs at Sunderland AFC in the late-90s, when the club returned to the top flight, Reid as manager and Slater as marketing director.

Like Reid, Slater has had a varied career at the senior level of his profession and has been uncompromising when necessary to get a result. His time there seems to have shaped his subsequent career.

Born in South Shields, Slater says that the opportunity to control the marketing function of the club he had supported since childhood prompted him to shelve plans to further his career along the FMCG path he had hitherto taken, with stints at Mars, Kraft and Diageo. So, at the tender age of 28 he joined Sunderland's executive board.

'It was the next best thing to putting on the red and white stripes,' says Slater. 'The previous roles had given me a strong foundation in commercial marketing, but I felt as though I was going through the production line - going down the same path as hundreds of other marketers.'

Fresh challenges

His time at the club was a success: attendance rocketed and he helped boost sales. Slater soon caught the eye of Phones4U founder John Cauldwell, who poached him to run the retailer's marketing operations.

While leaving his beloved Sunderland might have seemed a wrench, Slater says that he had promised his Italian wife that swapping the 'Northern tundra' of the North East for the 'leafy glens of Hampstead' was only a temporary move.

Such tongue-in-cheek comments are typical of Slater's wry sense of humour, but are often delivered with a slightly unsettling thousand-yard stare. For example, when asked what his biggest achievement was at Phones4U, Slater says: 'I had a marketing and CRM role. It was a period of record performance for the business in terms of sales and profits. It taught me to be massively commercial and understand ROI on marketing.' But he then qualifies this by adding: 'Marketing at Phones4U is a bit like turd-polishing,' noting 'the occasional accusation levelled at the business that consumers were not always put first'.

It is difficult to know whether Slater is poking fun at his erstwhile employer or, given that he cites his favourite brand as O2 (which in 2007 said it would stop selling new contracts through Phones4U), he holds a real grievance toward the brand.

What is clear is that Slater feels he has found a natural home at Whitbread-owned Costa Coffee, emphasising that he is more comfortable working for a brand where 'customers are at the heart of everything'.

He joined in 2008, at a time when the coffee-shop chain was looking to cement its advantage in store numbers over its rivals Caffe Nero and Starbucks. Costa still leads the field with 1000 UK outlets, ahead of Starbucks' 717 and Caffe Nero's 401. It now intends to extend its footprint by adding 130 outlets this year.

Slater's first year in the role was not without controversy after he helped launch the brand's first national marketing campaign, which aggressively targeted Starbucks.

The ads, created by Karmarama, claimed '7 out of 10 coffee lovers prefer Costa'. One carried the line: 'Sorry Starbucks, the people have voted'. Starbucks complained that the ads were misleading. The ASA is expected to publish its findings later this year; Costa is no longer using the ads.

Slater is unrepentant about the substance of the claim and the benefits it reaped, however. Indeed, the brand's subsequent campaigns have been similarly combative.

He says: 'When I arrived at Costa, the amount of pride at the company was striking. We made the best coffee but nobody had proved it or communicated it. Was I surprised by Starbucks' reaction? No. It is a big, aggressive US corporate leviathan and can afford expensive law firms.'

The growth of Costa has been impressive of late, with overall sales reaching £340.9m in the 2009 financial year, up from £276.2m the year before. Jeff Young, managing director at research group Allegra, credits some of this success to Slater's approach. He says: 'Costa is incredibly well managed and has fantastic marketing. It has had success with its ad campaigns.'

Yet the business faces several challenges as it looks to transfer its dominance in the regions to cities. High on the agenda is countering the growth of independent coffee houses and overcoming consumer perceptions of a takeaway coffee as a luxury in these straitened economic times.

To help grow the brand its focus this year has been twofold: the roll out of its loyalty card scheme and the launch of its Flat White coffee brand.

Flat White, a coffee option widely available in independent stores, is aimed at people who find lattes too weak and cappuccinos too frothy, and do not want the strong flavour of an espresso or black Americano.

Slater claims the drink is performing well at Costa. 'We are the first to take Flat White to a national audience and in the space of one month it represented 7.5% of our coffee sales, higher than expected.'

Starbucks, meanwhile, is putting significant investment behind marketing its instant-coffee brand Via in the UK, a tactic that Slater argues is inadvertently playing into Costa Coffee's hands. 'I love the Via advertising,' he says. 'It tells consumers what coffee connoisseurs have known for a long time: that the stuff you buy in Starbucks tastes like instant coffee.'

Costa is also increasing its presence in cities with the launch of Metro specialist coffee houses. These will have a different design and food offer from existing stores, with an extensive breakfast range and hot sandwiches. The first will open in London's Oxford Circus in July, followed by further stores in the capital.

'We need to seize the opportunity to do more business in the cities,' says Slater. 'These stores will look different and have quicker service, with more staff and tills.'

He is also looking further afield. Like most successful UK businesses, Costa Coffee also sees potential in overseas expansion. Now operating in 25 countries, it has just opened a store in Bangalore, India, where curry will be on the menu.

Slater's passion for the brand appears unwavering and infectious, which is more than can be said for his football support.

'I would love my son to have been brought up a Sunderland fan, but he has been seduced by Chelsea,' he says. 'I am now a season ticket-holder at Stamford Bridge and enjoy eating a meal on the King's Road. And I particularly enjoy not worrying about watching Sunderland play.'

Inside work
Pre-1998: Various marketing roles at Mars, Kraft and Diageo
1998-2004: Executive marketing director, Sunderland AFC
2004-08: Marketing director, Phones4U
2008-present: Marketing director, Costa Coffee

Outside work
Family: Married with children
Favourite car: Mercedes
Favourite holiday: England cricket tours
Favourite brands: O2, John Lewis