Murder Coffee

Black Rifle Coffee has made violence a core component of its brand. Amongst other things, I use an Ayn Rand quote to illustrate why this is problematic.

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Force and mind are opposites; morality ends where a gun begins. - Ayn Rand, ‘Atlas Shrugged’

From bowels to bloodshed

Before 2014, the only violence associated with coffee was the sort brought on by its post-ingestion bowel movement. Considered a staple food, coffee occupies a similar purchasing position as milk or rice: the branding for the most basic version isn’t that important so long as it’s unspoiled. If one wants to pursue a differentiated or luxury version, such as oat milk, it typically comes at a premium.

2014 marked when coffee’s violence escalated from bowel movements to actual harm; the founding of Black Rifle Coffee (BRC) Company. Emblazoned with the semi-automatic AR-15 to which its name refers, the company sells a variety of coffee and merchandise, mostly in the direct-to-consumer (DTC) channel. 

A perusal of BRC’s website and instagram page awards you an easy MAGA bingo: camo, 9/11, weapons of all varieties, dead animals, chesty babes, and American flags. Your bingo prize is knowing that the tacit threat of violence that undergirds already too many aspects of our daily lives has inexplicably made its way into coffee.

Lowest common denominator on up

When it comes to gastronomical branding, there are all kinds of non-sequiturs: the Michelin man working for the same company that reviews restaurants, The Quaker Oats Quaker, and McDonald’s Grimace to name a few. The distinction is that none of those images are built with the express purpose of extinguishing someone, as is the AR-15. 

Tom Davin, BRC’s CEO since 2019, understands that the company’s branding efforts preclude the majority of people--those well-adjusted enough to purchase coffee from one of the other 2,000 or so nonviolent beta-cuck roasters--from buying its coffee:

“We’re not going for the entire coffee market,” he said. “We’re going for roughly half.”

Aside from ‘half’ being a generous interpretation of the addressable market for murder-coffee, the half to which he refers includes an assortment of ding-dongs spanning ordinary non-hunting-gun enthusiasts to white nationalist groups like the proud boys, the oath keepers, and various militias. Nevertheless, in a market as large as coffee, reaching for half can have significant upside: in 2020, the company’s revenue almost doubled to $163 million. 

To my mind, BRC is the first significant brand to work from the lowest common denominator up, instead of the opposite. Nike encourages you to play tennis like Serena Williams, Lincoln wants you to exude luxury and class like Matthew McConaughey, and even Subway wants you to save money with $5 footlongs. In reality, most people wear Nike to sit on Zoom, leave trash in their Lincolns (if anyone even owns one at all), and eat Subway because it’s convenient, not because it’s part of a long-term retirement savings scheme. 

Hence my Ayn Rand quote

Violence, on the other hand, stems from desperation, not aspiration. It is the very final stage of convincing someone, the last resort after deciding convincing is no longer the objective. It’s what happens when you’ve run out of ideas. It is the concept that compelled me to put an Ayn Rand quote at the beginning of this essay. It sucks.

BRC’s implicit violence, manly posturing, and overall hardcore-ness stems from insecurity. In addition to offering a caffeinated jolt, BRC is a balm for the insecurity of feeling unsafe without a firearm and of the self-doubt that you’re not doing enough to broadcast your manliness. BRC coffee is the beverage version of putting lifts on a Ford F-150 truck.

Advertising, regardless of brand, is meant to expose and exploit insecurities. Most brands know better than to start there and instead mask it with aspiration. BRC instead says ‘Fuck it, shoot something.’

The right-wing dog whistles and wartime cosplay that come with this approach has proven to be problematic. As a result, it’s easy to draw lines between the furthest-right members of BRC’s customer cohort and domestic terrorists. Recently, a rioter at the January 6th storming of the Capitol was photographed wearing one of BRC’s hats. Prior to that, MAGA wunderkind Kyle Rittenhouse was photographed wearing a BRC t-shirt in a right-wing podcast host’s tweet.

It’s fair to wonder why other brands’ logos which were included in the Jan. 6 riot photos don’t receive the same type of attention. Someone there must’ve been wearing Nikes or Reeboks. Nobody notices because Reebok’s logo isn’t a shoe caving in a skull.

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Written by Kevin LaBuz, Below the Line is a weekly analysis of business models, mental models and technology. Check out his recent post on how Peloton is upending the fitness industry. Subscribe here.

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