Cambodian coffee chain blends local and international flavours

How homegrown brand Brown Coffee is luring local millennials away from the international chains.

Cambodian coffee chain blends local and international flavours

Over the past few years, coffee culture has been changing in Southeast Asia. Coffee drinkers have moved away from traditional coffee shops to international chains and small trendy cafés. And in Cambodia, a home-grown brand is telling its own story about modern coffee drinking.

Global chains like Costa Coffee, Gloria Jean’s and Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, along with small independant cafés, helped grow the Cambodian coffee market by catering to expats, tourists and the upper classes. Today, a chain called Brown Coffee has managed to stand out in a crowded market, connect with the emerging Cambodian middle class and become the market leader.

Brown was founded in 2009 by five Cambodian cousins in their mid-20s. A blended concept that mixes global aspirations with local taste, Brown is now far ahead of the international chains that dominate the business in neighbouring countries.

So why is Brown Coffee so different from both local and international coffee brands, and why do so many Cambodian millenials view it as their best choice? “We love to go and hang out at Brown after classes," said Nak, a 19-year-old student. "It's the coolest place to watch people and meet friends.” 

Brown Coffee is not just another socially responsible hipster café or localised version of some international chain. It isn’t dialling-up ‘local-ness’ but makes the strong statement of being a Cambodia-grown brand of international style and standard catering to a Cambodian audience.

Brown Coffee plays with the design and codes of typical American or Australian cafés while preserving local relevance and remaining approachable. Brown offers great quality blends adapted to Cambodian preferences (mild, sweet, indulgent options); a stylish and comfortable air-conditioned space with high speed free WiFi; local student baristas trained to guide new customers and table serving (when other chains have failed trying to establish self-service).

Before Brown, there weren’t many places for Phnom Penh’s middle-class youth to meet and interract. As the country started developing and opening up, there was an increasing need for spaces where young people could hang out in a cool but appropriate environment and experience the global lifestyle in Western style décor and with high speed internet access.

This article is part of the Cultural Radar series

Cambodia’s new café culture has spread along with its boom in internet use, dual links to the modern, cosmopolitan and connected world that Cambodia is now a part of. Today, Brown cafés have turned into working and sharing spaces that represent the country’s new era of progress. They are filled with Paññāsāstra students hanging out, selling goods on Facebook or watching the Sabay TV YouTube channel, and first jobbers enjoying their new financial independence.

What differentiates Brown from its competitors is its commitment to providing students with flexible part-time jobs and encouraging them to stay in school (university dropout is high as students need to send money back to their families) by financing their studies, offering English courses and providing school loans. While other brands may have corporate-social-responsibiliy programs, Brown Coffee encapsulates the energy of this new Cambodian generation, motivates them to work hard, and supports them as they reach out for their dreams.

Brown Coffee has become one of the most loved companies (more than 250,000 likes on its Facebook page) and a source of national pride for this new generation of Cambodian students and young professionals. In a market where everything foreign used to be thought superior, it is also the beginning of a new era with local and global brands competing on a more equal footing.

With the arrival of Starbucks in 2015 and the fast development of other international F&B brands, there is an opportunity to learn from Brown Coffee and its success in catering to Cambodia’s emerging middle class.

However, Brown’s pricing remains aligned with international chains, and as new regional chains like Amazon Café (from Thailand) with lower price points are now developing, they may challenge Brown’s popularity with the lower middle class. As one patron explains, “Brown is for people with cars and motorbikes, but now there are some cheaper cafes who attract people with the motorbikes.”

Brown will need to preserve its balance between leading-edge and local authenticity to keep up with an audience that is price sensitive, has extremely low brand loyalty and is always looking for something new to try. But for now, it’s hard to think of a brand that better encapsulates the truly vibrant and buzzing city that Phnom Penh has become or that better illustrates the mindset of its young people—integrating the most useful and relevant aspects of Western brands without conceding their favourite parts of Cambodian culture.

Galathée Salze-Lozac'h is project director at Flamingo Singapore.


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