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Coffee Shops



4 Branding Secrets From Hong Kong’s Newest Coffee Shops

by Gavin Yeung

Learn how coffee shop branding can be applied to any small business or startup.

Entrepreneurs looking for branding ideas and inspiration often don’t have to look very far – in fact, the very best examples in your city might just be where you get your morning coffee from. 

Aside from being a friendly place to pick up a flat white and an avocado toast, coffee shops also serve as a nexus of community, an expression of neighbourhood identity, and (most importantly to us) grassroots examples of branding –– essential to standing out and surviving amidst a glut of competition. 

Indeed, in today’s Instagram-dependent age, a perfectly executed caffeine fix is just one component of a café’s formula for success. To this end, what can we learn from the most impactful coffee shop openings of late? 

EQ picks out general trends in coffee shop branding from Hong Kong’s newest crop of latte dealers that other industries would do well to learn from. 

Be hyper-local

Hong Kong is a city that exhibits an unusual diversity in the character of its many neighborhoods. Each entirely distinct from the next, the city’s districts provide ample inspiration for cafes to draw from. 

From Aberdeen’s historic community of fisherfolk, reflected in Neighborhood Coffee’s fish cage chandelier and collection of books focused on the area’s rich history; to Sai Kung’s beach village vibes, which inform Little Cove Espresso’s airy seaside aesthetic, local character is a boon to creating a memorable brand in each instance, not only winning over nearby residents but also drawing visitors from elsewhere, keen to steep themselves in the color of the area. 

Halfway Coffee, which recently opened a third branch amidst the garages and hardware stores of Mongkok, has managed to attract a steady stream of Instagram influencers to its out-of-the-way location thanks to a vivid distillation of the neighborhood’s shambolic character. 

By resorting to creatively arranged found artifacts, from welding masks to an old hand-painted shop sign, the café weaves a pastiche of Mongkok’s gritty reputation, evoking an aesthetic of nostalgia in sharp contrast to the bland, air-conditioned mega-malls nearby.

Fill a niche

An increasing plurality in lifestyle choices is opening up a wealth of opportunities for new cafes to venture into, with cafes falling into several distinct categories. 

As more consumers opt for a meat-free or vegan diet, the likes of Vego Coffee in Jordan and The Park by Years in Sham Shui Po have catered their food and drink menus to this growing base by offering oat milk lattes and dairy-free pastries, thus differentiating themselves from the rest of the competition. 

In Yuen Long, the award-winning Accro Coffee attracts coffee geeks across the city to its moodily-lit long bar, which hosts a laboratory’s worth of coffee paraphernalia; while APT. Coffee offers a tailoring-inspired take on coffee with a flowchart-like menu that breaks down the many ways in which your drink can be customized, from the thickness of the foam to the milk volume.

Bring something extra to the table

When great coffee and avocado toast are the norm, coffee shops would do well to bring an unexpected element to their physical space to make a lasting impression. 

Elixir started out of a partnership with an independent clothing boutique in Causeway Bay’s Haven Street which, aside from the double draw of coffee and shopping, reaped rewards for both businesses involved. “We really benefited from that partnership,” says owner Rity Wong. “We could share the rent so we didn’t have to chase the revenue.” 

Recent examples of imaginative café experiences include Press The Button, which is attached to Japanese homeware boutique Midway Shop; Bone Studio, containing a design studio in the back; Book B, a book and zine shop that doubles as a Japanese eatery; and First Boy Coffee, sharing the same space as a motorcycle shop. 

You can’t be everyone’s cup of coffee

At the end of the day, small business owners must keep in mind that being everything to everyone is simply impossible – and potentially detrimental to your brand. 

“We get a range of customers but some people will only come once because they don’t enjoy the space,” says Elixir’s Rity. “They’re not our target audience so we’re not a match, but I’m totally fine with that because you can’t please everyone. When you do that, you lose control of your aesthetics and the image you want to portray.” 

Echoing her sentiment in getting the right customers, business partner Mitch Lui says, “You have to be wise in terms of how you want your customer to perceive your image. People come to Elixir because they want to be part of the space and part of the brand; they can get coffee anywhere else but they come because they want to build a relationship with you.” 

For more on creating a brand from scratch, here's a simplified guide to brand building from start to finish (a step-by-step guide for beginners).

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