Nescafé Mines CES for Next Big Idea In ... Coffee

Is It An 'Internet-of-Things' Connected Coffee Cup?

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The coffee cup. Could it be an "internet-of-things" connected device, or even a "wearable" in the same vein as a smart watch of Nike FuelBand?

Those were some of the questions asked and answered in a day-long "Fast Forward" event at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where WPP's Mindshare unit brought Nescafé together with a group of tech companies hoping to do business with them.

Nescafé is the biggest single brand in Nestle's universe and the largest manufacturer of coffee in the world. This year it became the latest non-tech marketer to add CES to its calendar in hopes of unearthing new technology that will help it do battle with upstarts all over the globe as well as U.S. behemoths like Starbucks.

"[Technology] changes and enables consumer behavior and CES is a showcase of that," said Nescafé CMO Sean Murphy. "Waiting until this is already in market, you're already too late."

For non-tech brands, CES takes place not on the convention center floor so much as in hotel suites where they conduct all-hands meetings both with established partners like Facebook and Yahoo but also with startups and tech companies not known for marketing, but which may be building the products that change the way brands interact with consumers.

Next door at the Wynn, Kimberly-Clark, maker of toilet paper and tampons, was also being pitched on tech innovations by tech companies curated by Mindshare. Two doors down, Facebook threw a viewing party for the BCS National Championship between Auburn and Florida State for advertisers.

This is Nescafe's first CES. The company came with a brief to reach millennials with the message that its coffee is sustainably grown and produced, as well as the social aspects of coffee consumption. Mr. Murphy came away with some solid leads it planned to pursue or at least investigate further, with startups like Blippar, Ayla Networks and Retailigence, as well some more-established players like Amazon and Spotify.

Ayla Networks pitched Nescafe on a smart coffee machine controlled from a mobile device that is, of course, connected to the cloud and allows sharing of things like brews and recipes. VP-Marketing Robert Markovich said his company, which builds and maintains the back-end technology, had been receiving a lot of inquiries from device-makers in the wake of the NEST smart thermostat.

"The role of the coffee machine and connectivity is a given -- we just have to decide the play we want to make," Mr. Murphy said later.

Digital agency Rockfish -- the only agency to pitch during the day -- went even further, proposing a smart portable coffee mug with, wait for it, WiFi, a USB connector, Bluetooth, an NFC chip, GPS and a sipping cover that displayed, among other things, the temperature of the beverage and New York Times headlines. The group being pitched, which included Nescafe, Mindshare, GroupM and Ogilvy execs, were split on that one. Would the complexity and cost outweigh the benefits to the consumer and the brand?

Nescafe's evaluations reflected a desire to move quickly on ideas connected to CES, but also to find longer range ideas that define where the coffee market may go. "Part of the game is momentum; you don't want to spend two years getting something in-market," Mr. Murphy said.

One easy call was to do a deal with Blippar, an augmented-reality app (but VP Lisa Hu would like you not to call it that) that allows users to point their smart phones at a product and get content like videos, more information or games. Blippar is already doing business with other Nestle brands and could get a prototype in the market in a few months.

The execs also liked a presentation from Jeremy Geiger, an entrepreneur and founder of Retailigence, both for his understanding of the global nature of the Nescafe brand but also because he seemed like the kind of outside-of-marketing entrepreneur that could bring new thinking to the global giant.

That's partly the point of CES -- to meet with companies that may only have a thin connection to the marketing world and that they may not have access to otherwise. "It's exposure to small entrepreneurial companies that wouldn't be at the Cannes festival," said Mindshare Worldwide Chief Digital Officer Norm Johnston.

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