What Iran's Café Culture Teaches Us About Its Consumer Culture

What Iran's Café Culture Teaches Us About Its Consumer Culture

Café culture is most often associated with the intellectual awakening of Europe in the 19th century. As Duke University Professor Jakob Norberg writes in a 2007 essay, cafés and coffeehouses were a unique public space in Europe, deeply connected to the intellectual awakening of the middle class. The café emerged as both a liberating and secure social space, a place of “vivid intellectual culture” yet also “relaxed communication.” These same qualities have made cafés in Iran susceptible to crackdowns by the authorities. The forced closure of Tehran’s Café Prague in 2013 was seen as a “significant loss for Tehran's academic and cultural life.” In the words of a patron, the café, named to evoke the intellectual milieu of 19th century Europe, “wasn't just a café; it was like home, a safe haven for us to forget all our daily troubles and burdens."

This lamentation echoes the argument of political theorist Carl Schmitt, who suggested that “coffee is a symbol of… the bourgeois desire to enjoy undisturbed security.” German philosopher Jurgen Habermas believed that “the coffeehouse is a place where bourgeois individuals can enter into relationships with one another without the restrictions of family, civil society, or the state.” As Norberg explains, “The notion… resonates with us because it is still recognizable. We have coffee, we meet in cafés, we sit down for chats with friends and acquaintances; Habermas's depiction of the coffeehouse still corresponds to an everyday practice.”

As coffee houses reemerge in the more open social and economic landscape of the Rouhani administration, the vibrant conversation among young, energetic, and creative Iranians who frequent places like the popular Sam Café corresponds to Habermas’ view of coffeehouse. At first glance, the cafés seem to offer both a liberal enclave within a larger Islamic public spaceoffering intellectual security and unrestricted relationships otherwise in short supply as well as a space to reinforce socioeconomic distinctions in ways that seem typically Western. However, this view ignores the fact that coffee’s place in Iranian society predates all meaningful Westernization. 

The history of coffeehouses in Iran dates back to the beginning of the 17th century, a time when coffee was more popular than tea. As relayed by social historian Rudi Matthee, coffeehouses were constructed on Esfahan’s famous Naqsh-e Jahan Square as early as 1603. The first coffeehouses in the United Kingdom were only established five decades later. The qhaveh-khaneh, literally the “coffeehouse,” was precisely the kind of open and intellectual space celebrated centuries later by the likes of Habermas and Schmitt. Matthee recounts the description of the French traveler Jean Chardin, who traveled Iran in the 1660's and 1670's:

These houses, which are big spacious and elevated halls, of various shapes, are generally the most beautiful places in the cities, since these are the locales where the people meet and seek entertainment. Several of them, especially those in the big cities, have a water basin in the middle. Around the rooms are platforms, which are about three feet high and approximately three to four feet wide, more or less according to the size of the location, and are made out of masonry or scaffolding, on which one sits in the Oriental manner. They open in the early morning and it is then, as well as in the evening, that they are most crowded… People engage in conversation, for it is there that news is communicated and where those interested in politics criticize the government in all freedom and without being fearful, since the government does not heed what the people say. Innocent games [...] resembling checkers, hopscotch, and chess, are played. In addition, mollas, dervishes, and poets take turns telling stories in verse or in prose. The narrations by the mollas and the dervishes are moral lessons, like our sermons, but it is not considered scandalous not to pay attention to them. No one is forced to give up his game or his conversation because of it. A molla will stand up, in the middle, or at one end of the qahveh-khaneh, and begin to preach in a loud voice, or a dervish enters all of a sudden, and chastises the assembled on the vanity of the world and its material goods. It often happens that two or three people talk at the same time, one on one side, the other on the opposite, and sometimes one will be a preacher and the other a storyteller.

The accounts of other travelers and scholars confirm Chardin’s description of the coffeehouses as a place of intellectual creativity and social mixing. Importantly, the coffeehouses were not confined to the imperial capital of Esfahan. Accounts speak of such establishments in Tabriz, Yazd, and Shiraz, among other cities. The coffee culture of Safavid Iran was highly developed, with characteristics that were both local and global, religious and secular. The later tendency to see café culture as a marker of Westernization, one shared today by morality authorities who often interfere with cafes and their patrons, may be tied to the role of the coffeehouse in the 20th century, when places such as Tehran’s Café Naderi became meeting places for intellectuals committed to ideological movements that originated in the West. In effect, café culture was conflated with the ideologies it was helping to foment, despite its much earlier and more local historical roots.

Today, coffee consumption in Iran is on the rise. The Customs Administration of the Islamic Republic of Iran reports that 8,000 metric tons of coffee are imported each year. Iran’s parallel import market probably means the true figure is higher. Working from the official figure, and assuming that each cup of coffee represents 7 grams, Iran’s total consumption equates to 1.1 billion cups of coffee each year (Italy, a country with 20 million fewer people, consumes a staggering 14 billion cups of coffee each year.) Importantly, just 10% of the coffee consumed in Iran is freshly ground, with the remainder being instant coffee. Nestle is the only major international brand with a significant market share, maintaining around 20% with its Nescafé instant line. The fragmented market and low overall volume reflects how tea continues to be the preferred form of caffeine consumption in Iran. However, consumption is expected to grow at the high rate of 11% CAGR until 2020, taking the value of the market to more than USD $200 million. Yet, unlocking the full commercial potential of this market is about much more than selling cups of coffee. The rise of coffee consumption will depend on the emergence of a coffee culture. New cafés are opening across Iran’s major cities. Establishments such as Tehran’s Sam Café and baristas such as Mehran Mirjani have recently garnered the attention of the global coffee community.

Overall, while the current revival of coffee in Iran is certainly a kind of re-exportation from the West (and in particular the so-called Third Wave coffee culture of Australia), it is not merely a Western phenomenon and should not be characterized as such. The implication is that companies seeking to engage in the coffee market in Iran (or the wider consumer market targeting young, urban millennials) must consider the full cultural significance of their product or service offering. Simply believing that Westernization is the most salient trend is a strategic error, particularly because of the increasing commercial importance of cultural identity.

In the past two decades, it has become clear that the world’s most successful consumer brands do more than promise effectiveness, enjoyment, or value. There is an increasing expectation for companies and their brands to address consumer demands for authenticity, creativity, and community—cultural offerings that elicit an emotional connection. Given the historical cultural significance of coffee, it is perhaps natural that one of the companies that ushered in this consumer expectation was Starbucks, whose trademark play on café culture captivated consumers. Stanley Hainsworth, Starbucks’ former VP for Global Creative explains in an interview with Fast Company:

When Howard Schultz first came to Starbucks, he wasn't the owner of the company. He joined a couple guys that had started the company. He went over to Milan and saw the coffee culture and espresso bars where people met in the morning. He saw how people caught up on the news while they sat or stood and drank their little cups of espresso. That inspired the vision he crafted from the beginning—to design a social environment where people not only came for great coffee, but also to connect to a certain culture.

The challenge for Schultz, Hainsworth and the team at Starbucks was to “create something for consumers that they don't even know they need yet.” As Hainsworth explains, consumers were looking for a new kind of place to congregate:

Howard was very wise in knowing that Starbucks was not the only company in the world to make great coffee. On the contrary, there are hundreds of other companies that can make great coffee. So what's the great differentiator? The answer is the distinction that most great brands create. There are other companies that make great running shoes or great toys or great detergent or soap, but what is the real differentiator that people keep coming back for? For Starbucks, it was creating a community, a "third place."

The lesson for the Iranian market is profound. Consumers now expect companies to show some cultural creativity at all stages of their experience—from advertising, to the retail experience, to the product itself. The ubiquity of the Apple iPhone in Iran is a strong indicator that this expectation has taken root. But perhaps most importantly, Iranians are looking for new “places” to congregate and connect.

The politicized nature of public space in Iran introduces both greater risk and greater reward for those companies willing to commit to converting “spaces into places”—but the immense popularity of sites like Palladium Mall (an upscale shopping center) or the Tabiat Bridge (a pedestrian overpass connecting two public parks in Tehran) underscores the potential. As a consequence, companies cannot simply import the branding, marketing, and product offering from Western markets. As is evident in the history of Iranian coffeehouses, what may seem like processes of Westernization are often more nuanced. The commercial imperative to create a culturally complete offering requires companies to fully commit to localization for the Iranian market.

Again, Starbucks offers some useful lessons. “Starbucks culture” was born in Seattle, Washington and encompasses everything from the “who the furniture was chosen for, what artwork would be on the walls, what music was going to be played, and how it would be played,” as Hainsworth explains. Starbucks faced an immense challenge in reinterpreting this culture for disparate markets such as China and India. As explained by Revathy Rajasekan in a case study in the IUP Journal of Brand Management, “Starbucks’ entry into tea-drinking India” hinged entirely on a dedicated effort to balance the forces of globalization with the requirements of localization. Despite an aggressive launch, Starbucks’ market entry had stalled until the right culture had been crafted for the Indian consumer. The same will be the case for all multinationals entering Iran.

It may seem incongruous to celebrate establishments like Sam Café and then claim that major corporations seeking to enter Iran ought to use the Starbucks approach to culture. By dint of its success, Starbucks is seen as a bogeyman for the kind of globalization that crushes local proprietors. But in a broadly underserved market like Iran, there is room for both independent businesses and major multinationals. It is worth remembering that Starbucks developed its identity and strategy from its original incarnation as a humble coffee roaster in Seattle. In this way, small businesses, with their inherent connections to local communities and the focused visions of their founders, offer a means to innovate cultural offerings. On the back of Starbucks’ success, which elevated consumer expectations, the “third wave” of independent coffee shops has emerged in the United States and worldwide. A similar sequence is emerging in Iran across cafés, restaurants, retail outlets, and boutique hotels. Often founded by individuals who have proven adept at melding the global and the local in an authentic cultural offering, these new “places” are signaling the larger potential for major multinationals. The revival of the coffeehouses of the past signals the emergence of new consumer expectations in Iran, providing a useful template for any future approach to the promising marketplace. 


Photo Credit: Sam Café

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