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How this creator-led coffee business is building a brand beyond founder Jacksepticeye

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By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

April 5, 2023 | 10 min read

Top Of The Mornin’ has hired Small World to help it ‘decouple’ from its YouTuber founder and grow as a business.

Jacksepticeye

Jacksepticeye is the face of Top Of The Mornin’, but he and the brand hope to eventually transition away from that reliance / Top Of The Mornin'

A famous name can be an enormous asset to an early-stage brand. It’s unlikely that Aviation American Gin would have sold to Diageo for hundreds of millions of dollars without its connection to Ryan Reynolds, or that energy drink Prime would have been able to empty shelves without its associations with KSI and Logan Paul.

What happens, though, when the time comes to move on? That’s the task facing Hugh Thomas, chief executive at Top Of The Mornin’ coffee. Established in 2020 by YouTuber and streamer Seán McLoughlin, who is known as Jacksepticeye, the business has gained a foothold in the market as a DTC brand offering coffee, specialty teas, hot chocolate and merchandise.

Key to its success so far has been an ability to convert the coffee-obsessed creator’s younger fans – intimidated by third-wave coffee joints or turned off by the mainstream positioning of Starbucks – into early-stage java connoisseurs.

“If you are a young teenager getting into coffee for the first time, the world of specialty coffee can seem quite snooty and unapproachable,” says Thomas. “We wanted to create an approachable brand that was modern, relevant and something you could dip your toe into.”

He hopes that’s just the beginning and is aiming to wean the brand off its famous founder as it scales.

Jacksepticeye

Beyond the creator

“The initial launch, before I joined the business, was incredibly successful,” Thomas explains, especially given that it was operating with a marketing budget of “almost zero”. But the team had always hoped it could grow beyond Jacksepticye. Thomas, who has been in the job for less than a year, is now working to make that a reality. “With the foundation set, we can really see this thing start to grow quickly.”

After bringing on design studio Earthling to carry out a brand refresh, he’s next focused on “building a brand that can stand on its own two feet“ without Jacksepticeye talking about it all the time.

For that he’s hired Small World, a creative agency launched off the back of a pandemic furlough project, to consolidate and then expand beyond its roots.

“This brand and the visual aesthetic for it should be able to engage customers whether they’re fans or new to Jacksepticeye,” he says. “It shouldn’t need Seán to have to post to sell products, to have to attend photoshoots, to have to attend store openings. Those are all things he’ll do, but having the brand transcend beyond him was always part of it.”

The business will have to move beyond its DTC model too if it’s to scale. Thomas says: “From a revenue point of very, it’s hard to see DTC as the core. But from a brand point of view, it’s likely to always be the nerve center and the core when it comes to staying in touch with our community. It’s a very subscription-friendly product… and in terms of engaging with the consumer it’s second to none, for testing new products or asking for feedback; I spent the first hour of today reading direct feedback from consumers. But obviously, the scale that Walmart or Target can provide is massive.”

The coffee sector is already highly competitive. There’s the “700lb gorilla” of Starbucks dominating the mainstream coffee market in the US, Top Of The Mornin’s biggest territory, while high-end coffee carries a “sometimes snobbish approach… making it like wine where you might feel you have to know something to get into it”. In contrast, Thomas wants to position the brand as part of a “fourth-wave,” bringing quality roast to “as many people as possible”.

It’s a strategy that’s worked for McDonald’s. The chain is now the largest coffee seller in the UK by some distance, in part due to cheeky ads by Leo Burnett that poked fun at flat whites, long blacks and innumerable recipe variations. Thomas hopes that trick can work for a brand with a more selective proposition, “a premium specialty experience delivered in a way that is accessible”.

TOTM

Entertainment brand

In the shorter term, creative agency-of-record Small World has been tasked with taking on Top Of The Mornin’s social brief. After winning a competitive pitch, it’s the shop’s first time as an agency of record says co-founder Dan Salkey, and a milestone for the unconventional agency.

“We’re trying to model a lot of our future new business on this, using it as an example. It’s definitely our intention to go after more of these types of clients and these types of relationships.”

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Thomas explains: “We had a pretty open brief. We wanted to find a group that was similar to us, that was young, hungry, natively creative an understood the audience and what modern media looks like, understand what community looks like and was willing to become Jacksepticeye fans overnight.” In time, he plans to expand the brand’s media footprint and Small World’s brief with it.

“It’s still going to be a very social-heavy brand initially, while we’re direct-to-consumer forward. Seán alone has Twitch, YouTube, Reddit, TikTok, Instagram, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook – he’s omnipresent. Our brand will be playing in those spaces. The brief for Small World is to take Top of the Morning’ from where it was, take this new brand positioning and then transcend that.”

Co-founder Harvey Austin says that, as the brand progresses, there needs to be a conscious “decoupling“ of it and Jacksepticeye. “It’s a bit of a challenge, but an exciting one.”

Salkey adds: “If you’re a traditional brand, you’re worried that nobody cares about what you’re doing and the only way you can reach people is buying a ton of Facebook or Instagram ads, or buying out-of-home or TV, buying your way into people’s hearts and minds. We have the inverse of that; an inbuilt media channel in the form of Seán’s subscribers. It makes sense to start where his audience is.”

In time, it’ll shift to marketing that exists in the “real world” but that can double as social content. “Liquid Death is a great reference for that, the way it creates merch or experiences for people,” he adds.

The canned water brand isn’t the only point of reference. Wendy’s success in blending consumer advertising and entertainment content, including activations within Fortnite, is also a model to aim for.

“If you’re a consumer packaged goods brand with a brilliant product, but you realistically aren’t selling anything new – it is coffee, at the end of the day – then you need a different point of view on the market... you need to entertain people,” says Salkey.

Thomas adds: “So many creator brands rely on the celebrity of their creator to drive their brand, even in the naming of the service or the brand imagery. It doesn’t build brands in the long term. I want to build brands that can last 50, 100 or 300 years, like Guinness or Coca-Cola. These household names don’t rely on the cult of personality.”

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