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Folgers is trying to be cool, confronting its bad reputation

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Folgers is trying to be cool. Though it is the bestseller of ground coffee in U.S. stores, the brand has had to confront a painful realization - its reputation is not great. NPR's Alina Selyukh reports on the coffee company's makeover.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: You know it's coming, so let's hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) The best part of waking up is Folgers in your cup.

SELYUKH: This jingle is possibly the most famous thing about Folgers - an ad campaign so successful we're still singing it almost 40 years later - except it's almost 40 years later. Is Folgers the best part of waking up? When I began asking this, I got answers like Ayanna Jackson's.

AYANNA JACKSON: It's sludge in your cup. It's just not. Sorry, Folgers.

SELYUKH: Jackson from Maryland is a strong no.

LUKE SIMMONS: It's what my parents drank. It's what my grandma drank.

SELYUKH: Luke Simmons is proud to carry on the tradition.

SIMMONS: There have been a couple of times where I've offered my friends coffee, and they've been, what kind is it? And I'll be like, it's good old Folgers motor oil.

SELYUKH: So people have made fun of you.

SIMMONS: Oh, yeah, definitely.

SELYUKH: Simmons lives in Arizona and starts every morning with a cup or two of black coffee, usually Folgers.

SIMMONS: It's - the first cup of coffee I ever had was a cup of Folgers coffee made in my mom's auto-drip.

SELYUKH: A carafe, brewed on a timer, shared with family before school and work - classic, right? That's a nice way to put it.

GEOFF TANNER: Candidly, many consumers were dismissing Folgers as their grandmother's coffee.

SELYUKH: That's the way Geoff Tanner put it. He is in charge of the brand as the head of marketing at J.M. Smucker, the parent company of Folgers.

TANNER: Well, 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.

SELYUKH: It's almost 170 years old, a throwback in a time of single-origin nitro lattes. Tanner says his team still found the product itself testing well, but its perception needed a wake-up. Along came a radical idea - an ad campaign that says, heck yeah, we're grandma's coffee.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD REPUTATION")

JOAN JETT AND THE BLACKHEARTS: (Singing) And I don't give a damn 'bout my bad reputation.

SELYUKH: As Joan Jett rocks her '80s counterculture anthem, there's a parade of others who are cool with Folgers - the crew of the company's roastery in New Orleans, some local female bikers, brass music star Trombone Shorty.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SELYUKH: A mainstream brand attempting an earnest snub to coffee snobbery - Tanner admits he took some convincing to agree to this campaign.

TANNER: Who goes out there and says, well, we know some of you don't think we're that good, but we don't care?

SELYUKH: The hope was to appeal to millennials and the Gen X. Tanner says it worked. In recent months, data from research firm IRI showed Folgers gaining ground with those age groups faster than competitors. Every year, Folgers sells over a billion dollars worth of ground coffee. And right now, in the moment of high inflation, it's drawing shoppers away from pricier brands.

TANNER: We are seeing and we continue to expect to see consumers trading down. Our hope and belief is that they're not seeing it as a trade down. Just because it's cheaper doesn't mean it can't be cool, which is what we were going after.

SELYUKH: OK. Ready?

MARY YANG, BYLINE: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF CUP SLIDING ON TABLE)

SELYUKH: I told my colleague Mary Yang about this story. At 22, she's the newest generation of coffee drinkers. She didn't associate Folgers with a bad reputation, but she'd also never bought it. I found an old Mr. Coffee machine in our office kitchen, and we did the thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF COFFEE MACHINE GURGLING)

YANG: I don't think I've ever used one of these in my life.

(SOUNDBITE OF COFFEE POURING INTO MUG)

SELYUKH: It's hot all right.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERSON SIPPING)

YANG: We definitely made it too light.

SELYUKH: You know too much about coffee.

Turns out I made old-school coffee for a former barista. She was kind and said she would totally finish the cup. Later, she confessed she did not. Pro tip - you got to drink it while it's hot.

Alina Selyukh, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.