From Bean to Bag, Artisan coffee packaging can help tell a complex story in a flash

City Girl Coffee packaging uses vibrant colors to stand out on the shelf // Photo by Tj Turner

This article was made possible through the underwriting support of Peace Coffee. The Growler maintained full editorial control of the content.

What’s in a name? Or for that matter: a color, a turn of phrase, or a font choice for a label?

For small coffee brands, the image projected on a package of coffee is far more than skin deep. The words, hues, and images that cover a package of coffee can do everything from helping a small company stand out, to attracting and holding a desired group of customers, to educating consumers about everything from ethical sourcing to proper brewing techniques.

In Minnesota, two of the most visible coffee brands are also among those with the most vivid stories. City Girl Coffee in Duluth has been doing business since 2015, and it represents a continuation of one of Minnesota’s longest-established coffee companies. And Peace Coffee in Minneapolis has built a million-pounds-of-green-coffee-a-year local coffee empire on the basis of a mission dedicated to ethically responsible and sustainable sourcing. Both companies have put their stories front and center as they’ve sought to stand out in a crowded marketplace.

For City Girl, a Brand and a Mission Intertwined

“I wanted to really create something and make it my own,” says Alyza Bohbot, owner of Alakef Coffee Roasters and the founder of the City Girl Coffee brand. Bohbot’s parents founded Alakef in 1990, and she started a six-month trial in September 2013 to see if she wanted to take over the company and move it forward into an increasingly saturated market. She decided that she did, and she started looking for a fresh direction in which to take the company.

“I didn’t know what that was going to look like but then I was invited by one of our female importers to attend a breakfast for an organization called the International Women’s Coffee Alliance,” recalls Bohbot. “The IWCA is an organization that works to support and promote women coffee growers throughout the world, and help them find access to education, financing, resources, and marketplaces. […] I remember sitting in that breakfast and being shocked that I’d grown up my entire life in and around the coffee business and having no idea that this inequity existed.”

A desire to tackle the gender inequality at the heart of the coffee business is what spurred Bohbot to create City Girl. “It was an ‘aha’ moment,” she says. “Here was an opportunity to create a brand that was not only representative of me and my generation and my style, but also an opportunity to create a brand that brings awareness to this inequity and what it means for these women in their communities.”

City Girl sources from women-owned and -managed farms and cooperatives around the world, and works with organizations including IWCA and Cafe Feminino to give a portion of the company’s profits back to women in coffee-producing communities.

When it came to branding, Bohbot’s first impulse was to zig where her competitors were zagging. “I’d got to the grocery store and look at the coffee section and everything was very similar,” says Bohbot. “Peace [Coffee] had the bright red—but [otherwise] you didn’t see a ton of color five years ago.” Bold colors including bright pink, Bohbot says, are a way to stand out and also to play up City Girl’s conscious embrace of women in the industry.

“Coffee has been gender non-specific, which is absolutely fine,” she says. “But whether we like it or not, women are the purchaser in the majority of households so I kind of wanted to create something that was a little more feminine that brought the message of what we were doing to the women but also spoke to femininity and women empowerment in general.”

“My favorite color is hot pink, I wear it a lot,” she says. “People are surprised when I show up for meetings and they say: ‘Oh you look like your branding right now,’ and I say ‘yeah, it’s because these are my colors, these are the colors I love.’”

Bohbot says the attraction to pink was part of a search for a look that felt bold and vital. “I had this idea of ‘50s glam meets modern badass, you know? I wanted to really create something that was young and fun and vibrant and that also could dig deeper into the storytelling of these women and share their success with the world.”

The color, she says, plays an additional role of informing consumers about how to use the coffee that they’re buying. “Our yellow packages represent our lighter roasts,” says Bohbot. “Our green and pink packages represent our medium blends. Our blue packages represent our darker roasts.”

An Accidental Name Starts the Peace Coffee Journey

Photo by Tj Turner

“We were not originally named Peace Coffee,” says company owner Lee Wallace. Wallace bought the company in 2018 after leading it since 2006. “We were started [in 1996] by a nonprofit that didn’t have a lot of marketing and branding experience, and they named the company Headwaters International. Our second coffee was with farmers in Guatemala. It was just after the Guatemalan peace accords had been signed, so we called that second variety of coffee ‘Guatemalan Peace Coffee’ in honor of the peace accords. That name just took off.”

More than most companies in any sector of business, Peace Coffee has put its mission front and center. “The focus from the start has been to produce a delicious product that also did the right thing and supported coffee farmers and coffee farming communities,” says Wallace.

The company has spent the last two years working on a major rebranding of its packaging, an effort that culminated in its launch this year and the winning of the best in show prize at the Aiga Minnesota 2019 design show. “We were really trying to update the brand so that it still felt like us, we wanted to keep our playful spirit, we love to have fun and don’t take ourselves too serious, but at the same time we wanted to communicate better on our package,” says Wallace.  “On our old bag, you had to pick it up and look at the back to figure out what the roast level was, what the flavor notes were, we didn’t feel that it jumped out if it was a whole bean or a ground coffee.”

The previous 12-ounce bag, says Wallace, was loaded with hidden information and the name of the company itself was overshadowed by its turtle-inspired logo. “On the newer bag we’re focused on communicating a little more clearly with the consumer,” she says. “We wanted people to see the name Peace Coffee, to see the words ‘organic’ and ‘fair trade’ and what was going on with this product. Then we updated the turtle and modernized him a little bit. He’s still prominent but he’s not center stage, if you will.”

The Peace Coffee naming and branding process, says Wallace, typically starts with Peace Coffee head roaster Jessica Yockey. “She has been with Peace Coffee for a long time, and she and our green buyer understand the green coffee—how it roasts, what flavor profile it is, whether it’s good for blending or if we should highlight it as a single origin, things like that,” says Wallace. “Once they really understand the coffee they start to talk to folks on the sales and marketing side of the organization about our overall lineup, about the holes in the lineup, what things consumers are looking for, and it’s an iterative process. They’ll develop something, we’ll try it, we’ll talk about it, they’ll tweak it.”

Once the final destination of a batch of beans has been determined, it falls to the company as a whole to come up with new naming and branding when the process calls for it. “We’ve had all kinds of different ways we create the names,” says Wallace. “We’ve had internal contests to come up with names… what we do, we can get very serious and wonky about, but we don’t want to get too serious about it. We want to communicate the playfulness we’ve got going on inside the company.”

The whole team gets involved in the process, says Wallace, and they make a particular effort to get customer-facing employees to contribute ideas. “The cool thing about what we’ve got going on is we have four coffee shops and we can bring baristas into the mix,” she says.

Peace Coffee began in 1996 with a mission to make exceptional tasting, organic and fair trade coffee. As a Certified B Corporation located in the heart of Minneapolis, Peace Coffee is dedicated to paying small-scale farmers industry-leading prices and offering staff competitive wages with supportive benefits. Named one of the top 10 most sustainable coffee companies in the country by Civil Eats, Peace Coffee is poised to continue to fulfill its mission while delighting taste buds across the upper Midwest.