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Folgers, a throwback coffee brand in a time of nitro lattes, wants to be cool

Folgers is trying to be cool with millennials and Gen X coffee drinkers. Inflation is helping.
Justin Sullivan
Getty Images
Folgers is trying to be cool with millennials and Gen X coffee drinkers. Inflation is helping.

The comforting gurgle of his auto-drip coffee maker is one of the first sounds Luke Simmons hears in the morning. He pours himself a steaming cup, black coffee, his first of several, and describes the moment lovingly.

"Good ol' Folgers motor oil!" Simmons, 29, cracks up saying this, because yes, his friends do make fun of him.

It's surprising how evocative conversations can get when you start asking people about Folgers. They try to remember the last time they tasted it. They reminisce about ancestors who drank it. They might even break into song.

The brand is nearly 170 years old — a throwback at a time of fancy single-origin nitro lattes. Folgers remains the biggest seller of ground coffee in U.S. stores, over $1 billion worth a year. But it's confronted a painful realization: Its reputation is just ... not strong.

"The best part of waking up?" says Ayanna Jackson, 47, from Maryland. "It's just sludge in your cup — sorry, Folgers!"

Folgers goes out on a limb

It's rare to hear brand executives talk about failures. But Geoff Tanner, chief commercial and marketing officer at J.M. Smucker, the parent company of Folgers, doesn't hold back.

"Candidly, many consumers were dismissing Folgers as their grandmother's coffee," he acknowledges.

"We could certainly see it in our sales numbers. We had been losing market share for quite some time... The brand had been losing relevance, particularly with younger consumers."

Tanner says his team found the product itself doing well in testing — but its perception needed an urgent wake-up.

Luke Simmons, 29, starts every morning with a cup or two of black coffee, usually Folgers.
/ Courtesy of Luke Simmons
Courtesy of Luke Simmons
Luke Simmons, 29, starts every morning with a cup or two of black coffee, usually Folgers.

Along came a radical idea: an ad campaign that says, "Think of us as grandma's coffee? Heck yeah we are!"

The video starts with Joan Jett's 1980 counter-culture anthem: "And I don't give a damn 'bout my bad reputation. Oh no, not me."

Then comes a parade of Folgers fans: the crew of the company's roastery in New Orleans, the area's famous female bikers, brass music star Trombone Shorty, and yes, a very cool grandma.

"It was (a strategy) that we debated a lot internally," Tanner says. "Who goes out there and says, 'Well, we know some of you don't think we're that good, but we don't care'?"

But the gambit — a mainstream brand launching an earnest snub of coffee snobbery — appears to be working.

The timing helped

Folgers was hoping to appeal to millennials and the Gen X. And in recent months, Tanner says, data from research firm IRI showed Folgers gaining ground with those age groups faster than competitors. And overall, sales are growing.

The timing helped. Since the pandemic, many people scaled back their pricey coffee outings in favor of a home-brewed cup. And then there's inflation, with Folgers and rivals raising their prices.

Still, it's among the cheaper options, so shoppers looking to save money and trade down from more expensive brands may be giving that red plastic jar of Folgers on the grocery shelf a new look.

"If someone thinks Folgers is sludge, I'm not going to change their mind, but I'm going to enjoy the fact that I like it, and that my cup of coffee is probably significantly cheaper than theirs," says Simmons, the lifelong Folgers drinker from Arizona.

"It's the first coffee that I ever had. It's what my parents drank. It's what my grandma drank. And so it's always going to have a special place in my heart."

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Alina Selyukh
Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.