Building A Rock-Solid Community Offline


By Kate Spiers

Flat White is a Mecca for caffeine-obsessed Soho types. Not only does Flat White serve the best coffee in town (the original New Zealand Flat White – a thing of beauty in itself).  It has an authentic vibe. Cool people, the best music, palpable energy.

But their digital footprint is minimal. They have a website (currently not live for some reason) and enthusiasts blog about them but there’s no Twitter account, no Facebook fan page, no YouTube channel or blog. And – shock – I don’t think they need it.

Because Flat White has one of the most loyal followings in town, it’s de facto cool, and rarely empty. They even opened up a sister venue, Milkbar, just a few streets away, which should technically cannibalise their trade, but doesn’t.

To me, it’s a great reminder that social technology is not for everyone right now, and that good old-fashioned marketing principles of brand, service, promise and experience count.

So how’d they do it? And how can we learn from their success?

1. It’s about people

Visit Flat White and running the show most of the time is Cameron, the slightly wired-looking barista (he sinks a lot of espressos a day). He is a bundle of energy, easy going and super friendly. He talks to everyone about pretty much anything and generally makes you feel good to be there.  The rest of the team echo Cam’s style – it all feels right.  You can’t fake this stuff.

2. It’s about passion

This is a place where great things happen. Dare ask Cameron about the coffee and he’ll tell you about the beans, the roaster, the machine, the settings, etc. Ask him about the food and they’ll describe it in as much detail as you want.  They’re bothered about being as good as they possibly can be, and about serving their faithful public brilliantly.  The passion and enthusiasm for what they do is clear.

3. It’s about belonging

Flat White is not for everyone. At worst, it’s loud, small, the coffee takes way longer to arrive than at Starbucks, and there’s no toilet and no WiFi. It’s also not cheap. But these “mass barriers” serve a purpose. You come here because you don’t want Starbucks, because the coffee is worth the wait and the money, because the music is insanely good and because you know you’ll be in good company. With people like you.  In a market consumed by standardized brand experiences, this is worth something.

4. It’s about word of mouth

This is probably the closest that Flat White gets to  social media – location check-ins via FourSquare and Gowalla, Twitter mentions, blog posts and the fervour of the faithful contribute to spreading the word. But take a look at it – this is all actively driven by committed customers, not Flat White themselves. They just concentrate on doing a great job and the rest takes care of itself.

And I genuinely believe that so long as they continue to maintain the passion, commitment and feelgood factor, Flat White will prosper.

This can’t work across the board, of course.  But where there is a physical experience, particularly an emotive one (comfort, belonging, pleasure, stimulation), it’s interesting that offline rules.  And there is nothing wrong with that.

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