Illy’s espresso coffee tin is a masterclass in branding

Marketers know that being a commodity is the road to ruin. So rather than being in a mythical market with a single market price, marketers try to segment customers into different types with different needs, and then choose which segments to target.

I love coffee. My favourite brand is Illy. To me, Illy’s espresso coffee tastes great, but it’s more expensive than the supermarket brand. What have marketers done to make me pay £6.50 a tin as opposed to £3.50 a bag of Taylors of Harrogate – or less for a supermarket value brand?

Firstly, the higher price itself is an indication that it’s better. There’s no law to force more expensive products to be better, but they’re relying on a heuristic – that is to say, a mental shortcut – which is that if Illy is bold enough to put a higher price on it, then I’m likely to believe it’s better. I stay as a repeat purchaser because, although I haven’t conducted a peer-reviewed, scientific blind tasting of espresso coffee brands, I like how it tastes.

Foreign consumer culture positioningIlly Classico

What’s more, there’s the whole Italian positioning going on – what academics label as foreign consumer culture positioning. In the back of my mind, like many people, I see Italy as the home of good coffee and the espresso. The Illy tin emphasises this with the partial use of the Italian language. On the front, for example, it reads “Illy Classico” and I know from the world of wine that Classico on a bottle of Italian Chianti suggests premium. In wine, it’s regulated whether you can add classico to the bottle according to the Chianti Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) from 1967. So using the word Classico on a tin of coffee is surely a suggestion that this is somehow authoritatively better.

Sonic branding

Then the marketers behind this product have done something truly brilliant. They’ve applied sonic branding. Perhaps the most famous example of sonic branding is the Intel inside jingle that is played on TV adverts. Illy’s tins have sonic branding built in.

If you unscrew the lid of an Illy tin for the first time, you see the next layer of packaging – some metal with something to pull with the words “lift the ring slowly to let the gas out”.

As you pull the ring, there’s a sound. That sound – caused by the rush of gas or whatever it is – has a surprising effect on me. It makes me feel happy – or, as marketers say, it fuels a brand association. A brand association is anything which is deep seated in customer’s mind about the brand.

Brand associations

I associate that sound with lazy Saturday morning where there is not a care in the world and I can spent time with the freedom and time to think. If I ever feel a bit stressed, cracking open an Illy tin cheers me up.

The sonic branding that Illy uses reinforces claims on the tin. The back of the tin says that it’s “packaged in a protective atmosphere”, while in the top it says its “pressurized for freshness”.

You know, I bet all ground real coffee sold in supermarkets is packaged in a protective atmosphere, but Illy is the brand that tells you that, and makes sure you can hear it every time you open a tin.

In a 2003 book, Sonic Branding: An Essential Guide to the Art and Science of Sonic Branding, Daniel M. Jackson says that the key to the Intel Inside jingle being successful was that “it was created to convey the emotions of the brand, not just to be memorable”. And I think Illy’s sonic branding, which is so intrinsic to the product, does that too.

Brand associations are more powerful than people imagine. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, says that “Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room”. As a marketer you can help create associations with your brand but you’re not totally in control of it, and the associations can be negative. For example, when you think of your broadband provider, it’s possible that the first thing that comes into your head is spending a long time on the phone to their call centre trying to get them to fix a technical or billing issue – not the association any company should want. Illy’s brand associations, on the other hand, are a masterclass in branding.