Ugly Mug Gets Inside the Sleepy Heads of Loyal Coffee Drinkers

Posted: May 6, 2014 by
Larry Jaffee

Coffee drinkers are passionate. They take their caffeine ritual very seriously. Many people cannot kick into gear until they down the first cup. But how does a small roaster get noticed at retail?

That dilemma puzzled the owners of Ugly Mug in Memphis, TN, a brand founded in 1998 as a university cafe. These days, the brand is distributed in 1,000 grocery stores from Tennessee to Maine. "Our four-corner-sided bag stood up on the shelf better than most, but it didn't really jump off the shelf," explains Tim Burleson, COO of Ugly Mug.

Research conducted by its creative agency, Young & Laramore Advertising in Indianapolis, IN, found that package design is the No. 1 factor in choosing a brand. "Seventy percent of all buying decisions are made as how it looks on the shelf. People are very leery of changing brands in the coffee aisle, " notes Burleson.

"The agency's approach to brand positioning is to throw out all assumptions we think we know about a product category, " explains Trevor Williams, Young & Laramore's associate creative director. About eight to 10 of the agency's staff will work on a typical project.

In 2005, Young & Laramore set Ugly Mug to "reconstruct" the brand, and leave aside any preconceived notions that the company might have had about itself—or coffee in general. After a year of development and consumer research, including two focus groups, Ugly Mug decided to have its brand identity reflect the psyche of the coffee drinker.

That is why the packaging is laden with copy that speaks to anyone addicted to the aroma of fresh grinds first thing in the morning. For example, the cover of its Saving Grace blend says of Morning People: "They begin the day with a seemingly boundless supply of energy and pluck. Luckily for the rest of us, they slow down around eleven o'clock, at which point they're pretty easy to pick, swat down, and crush the hope out of."

Other musings, inspired by the journal jottings of focus group participants, deal with office coffee, the snooze button, and the alarm clock. "It's the way they wake up," Burleson says. Out of that came the brand's groggy-eyed bed head spokespersons, who look like they just rolled out of bed, and appear on the side of some of the packages and print advertising. They are much more contemporary than the old farmer who used to grace the coffee packages.

Little remains of Ugly Mug's original package design scheme except the name. But, the break with the past has led to heightened brand visibility and increased sales.
Hand-set lead type

Key to Ugly Mug's new look is the old-fashioned, lead type setting on all advertising materials produced by Yeehaw Industries, of Knoxville, TN. "They hand-set each letter," marvels Williams. Typically, only 10% of a coffee aisle is devoted small niche brands, which makes it all the more important to capture attention. "There's only a small area to stand out and make a statement," adds Williams.

The distinctive hand-type printing sets Ugly Mug apart from the competition. It is used not only on the packaging, but also in all of its print advertising and billboards. The metallic composition of the bag is also unique. "There's not another silver bag on the shelf," notes Burleson.

The packaging is manufactured by Pack Plus of Chino, CA, and eight different bags are currently hand-packed. The new packaging hit store shelves this past January. Since then, Ugly Mug has seen sales bumps of 30% to 35% in South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, which Burleson attributes to the rebranding effort.

Burleson cannot emphasize enough the communication that has transpired between agency and client: "It's like a relationship among friends. They understand our DNA. We interviewed other companies. Young & Laramore looked and acted like us. At the end of the day, they let us be us instead of who they think we should be. "

One thing Young & Laramore did not fool with was the brand name, which harks back to its days as a college coffee cafe. Its patrons would leave their own coffee mugs, which would be displayed on shelves on the wall after proper washing. Someone once quipped: "That's some ugly mugs," and the moniker stuck.