By one estimate, there are at least 50 coffee shops within a half-mile radius of the Suffolk campus. From the modest Boston Brewin’ Coffee Company (one tiny location on Bromfield Street) to the behemoth of Dunkin’ Donuts (seemingly on every corner), coffee is big business in downtown Boston.

So how do you stand out if you’re an artisanal coffee shop that focuses on single-farm-sourced beans? That’s the dilemma George Howell Coffee has and why they’ve approached the Sawyer Business School to help. In fact, a group of marketing students in the course Customer Insights and Decision Making is already working with the coffee roaster, putting together a plan to help increase traffic to the company’s three café locations and raise brand awareness.

“In the class, our research process is quite extensive, with secondary data, focus groups, and an extensive segmentation survey,” says Professor Mujde Yuksel. “Furthermore, we focus on the strategy side and analyze the insights gained from research to come up with a full marketing plan.” In other words, George Howell Coffee will be getting the “trenta” treatment, to borrow from one of their competitors.

Suffolk insights for Boston businesses

Why did George Howell Coffee approach the business school? The company heard about another Sawyer class that did market research for Roche Bros., which is located just steps from campus. Howell Chief Operating Officer Rebecca Fitzgerald realized that the marketing expertise her company needed was just up the block from its flagship location on Washington Street.

“The business school is right around the corner from us, so we figured it would know our target market really well,” says Fitzgerald. “Students also know the area. And that’s vital for a small, local business.”

Small batch, not Big Gulp

Unlike its larger rivals, George Howell Coffee isn’t focused on cranking out caffeine bombs but rather creating educated coffee drinkers. It has events almost every day that teach about tasting and brewing and palate training. And it works hard to support coffee farmers around the world by buying in small batches and ensuring that the quality of the beans remains high.

“The majority of our coffees are named after the farms we buy from,” says Fitzgerald. “A lot of our competitors do blends of coffee that come from different farms, which makes the coffee sort of anonymous. We’re all about supporting coffee farmers and giving them a name.”

This mission of quality over quantity comes straight from eponymous founder George Howell, who’s something of a legend in the Boston coffee community. Howell founded his first café, the Coffee Connection, in Harvard Square in 1974. The chain grew to 24 stores before it was sold in 1994 to Starbucks, giving the Seattle chain a big boost to its presence in Boston. Now he’s back in the business with George Howell Coffee.

But even the nicest spaces, the best beans, and the smartest baristas don’t necessarily translate into huge success. Smart marketing is as key an ingredient as hot water and ground beans. That’s why the company contacted the business school.

Experiential learning and cupping

As Suffolk alumni will tell you, getting out into the real world is an essential part of the Suffolk experience. That’s why, on a cool fall afternoon in September, students filed in to the Howell flagship store to learn about cupping, an elaborate tasting process that helps with buying decisions, training baristas, and educating drinkers.

While students sniffed and sipped brews made from the various beans that George Howell Coffee regularly serves, they asked questions about the challenges that the business faces in the Boston market.

“I learned a lot about George Howell’s branding concepts and customer base through the cupping,” says Dana Prandato, a student in the class. “It was a really good setting to get the information I need as a marketer, because we were walking around, tasting coffee, and asking questions. It’s not like we were at a desk. They showed us what they were about, and we’ll be able to dig deeper from there.”

Indeed, digging deeper is what the class is all about. And using what they learn this fall, the students hope to help George Howell Coffee write a recipe for success in this competitive coffee city.


Students in MKT 499 will present their final marketing plan to George Howell and his team later this fall. Check the Sawyer Business School website in December to see their findings. 

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