Coffee, Communism and (Brand) Creation.

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Vietnamese coffee packs a punch and nowhere does it better than the capital city of Hanoi. Walking down the narrow streets in the city’s Old Quarter district, it’s easy to see why. Barely a street goes by without seeing at least one shop selling cà phê, or Vietnamese-style coffee, by the cup. Most of these shops are small, family-owned affairs and resemble Malaysia’s own suburban kopitiams. Others are more modern cafes serving both Western and Vietnamese coffee. However, few of them are international brands. For example, Starbucks has a much smaller presence in the Vietnamese market with only about 49 stores in the country after six years.[1]

Instead, it’s the home-grown Vietnamese coffee shop chains who are on the rise. Owned and operated by Vietnamese entrepreneurs, these emerging brands have displayed a keen understanding of Vietnamese culture and consumers which has given them an edge over their international counterparts. They also serve more than just traditional Vietnamese drinks, offering Western style coffee as well as non-caffeinated drinks such as juices and smoothies to cater to a younger audience. They offer the best of both worlds and have proven very popular with younger consumers and Vietnam’s rising middle class. 

Make coffee not war

Source: The Rusty Compass

In a country where the national pastime seems to be sitting out on the sidewalk sipping on coffee and munching on sunflower seeds, one shop sticks out amongst the rest. Decked out in army-green and adorned with simple white signage, Cộng Cà Phê is a home-grown coffee franchise that has become widely popular with young Vietnamese and foreigners alike. 

The chain is probably one of the best designed and more recognisable cafés around. Each branch is laid out like a hipster’s dream with low lighting, lots of loft spaces and smaller, private nooks. Inside, patrons sit on low wooden chairs or foldable camp stools (all done in the same army-green) around tables pockmarked from years of use. Napkins in traditional enamel mugs sit on every table next to white ashtrays, and 1970s propaganda posters cover grey concrete walls. 

The combination of military chic with more traditional Hanoian elements comes across as more retro and ‘tongue-in-cheek’ rather than a serious homage to the war. Cộng aims to take the communist theme and give it a light-hearted twist. According to CEO Nguyen Khanh Ly, “It’s not [meant to be] serious or political.”[2]

Perhaps because communism is emotionally linked to Vietnam’s history, the brand has not escaped criticism. There has been some backlash against the chain’s misappropriation of communist literature, with an official investigation launched into one of its branches in Trung Hoa district in 2013.[3] The chain had initially used menus printed or written inside books written by Vladimir Lenin, founder of the Russian Communist Party, and who is still officially recognised as a symbol of communism in Vietnam. The café was closed down but only briefly; after a re-brand which involved changing the menus and logo (whose original colours were also deemed inappropriate), Cộng opened its doors once again.  

Since then, the chain has expanded tremendously. From just a hole-in-the-wall in Hanoi, Cộng has since expanded to over 50 stores across the country, with plans to take the brand international. 

Nostalgia marketing and millennials

A lot of Cộng’s success relies on its brand visibility. From its signature army-green walls to its unique communist-slash-military chic décor, Cộng is instantly recognisable and stands out against the more brightly coloured shops. It was one of the first Hanoi cafés to place so much emphasis on décor. Before Cộng opened in Hanoi, all the coffee shops in the city had plastic chairs and neon lights[4] – no one cared about the overall look and feel of the place, much less put any emphasis on a vintage style.

Cộng’s Vietnam War theme not only makes its cafes look good but is also completely on trend. And when nostalgia is able to keep a finger on the pulse of popular culture, therein lies the marketing magic. Culturally, aesthetically, commercially, socially, nostalgia is ‘in’ right now. Combining marketing strategies with emotion or fond memories is a powerful strategy; nostalgia marketing takes it one step further by purposefully evoking positive cultural memories from previous decades to drive modern campaigns.[5] It’s particularly effective on millennials who love to reminisce about how things used to be. 

Vietnam has a comparatively young population. Millennials tend to shop and consume differently compared to other demographics. They place a higher value on brand experience, personalisation and convenience and tend to be a lot more brand savvy.[6] They’re also a lot more willing to romanticise the past. 

Cộng, with its cheeky references to the war and vintage memorabilia, is perfectly placed to evoke memories of a simpler time. In fact, the first Cộng shop on Trieu Viet Vong Street, with its shabby tables, lumpy chairs and cheap trinkets, was inspired by the owner’s memories of the 1975-1986 subsidy period when people had to make do with old things. 

Taking cà phê abroad

Source: Minimi Insights

For someone who’s not Vietnamese, Cộng’s many references to the Vietnam War and the country’s communist past is an eye-opener and even a little provocative. But it’s not the case for many Vietnamese who look back on this period of history with a certain amount of nostalgia and pride. Even the younger generation who were born after the war take pride in their heritage and use it to drive their search for a better, more affluent future. 

But how will this nostalgia-driven, military chic brand fare with a completely different audience? With plans to expand overseas, Cộng intends appeal to the young and trendy while still maintaining a distinctive Vietnamese flavour – minus the communist throwbacks.

As of this year, Cộng already has an overseas branch in South Korea in hip Yeonnam-dong, Seoul. The area, known as the “trendiest area in all of Seoul” is extremely popular with university students. And judging from online reviews, Cộng’s Seoul branch seems to be well-received by locals, with over 5000 customers per day in its opening month. Check-ins by customers on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube have been frequent and numerous, and have received positive responses from Korean and Vietnamese alike. While it’s still too soon to tell if Cộng’s overseas venture will pay off, so far, the rebrand from communist-kitch to retro chic has proven popular in trendy Seoul. 

Cộng melds traditional Vietnamese tastes with a new, retro chic look and feel. Its example proves that the combination of nostalgia marketing, cohesive décor and unique branding can be powerful enough to connect with audiences beyond the brand’s hometown. 

After all, coffee has always been delicious. But being able to sip coffee from a vintage glass while surrounded by vintage, war-time memorabilia is enough to compel even foreigners to come in for a cup – and that’s brilliant branding at work.

 

The best campaigns are often timely, relevant, and authentic, with an emotional hook strong enough to capture consumers’ hearts. Now more than ever, brands need to be in tune with their target audience and trends. As a young and vibrant team, COMMUNICATE would love to work with your brands on marketing strategies that can tell a story, which will resonate with consumers to boost your brand experience. 

 

Note: Cộng has arrived in Malaysia! Its first outlet, located in NU Sentral, KL opened on 2 November 2019. Stay tuned for updates!

1. The Voice of Vietnam, 2019
2. Nikkei Asian Review, 2015
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Forbes, 2016
6. Vietnam Economic Times, 2019