Comedy cafe

Updated: 2012-10-12 10:02

By Lu Chang (China Daily)

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 Comedy cafe

Top: Mr Bean Coffee says it targets at those who like a laugh and don't stand too much for any form of ceremony or ritual regarding their coffee-drinking habits. Above: Tino Wu is chief representative of Mr Bean Coffee in China. Photos Provided to China Daily

China's got mr bean selling coffee - and they're not playing for laughs

The creators of one of the world's most recognized comedy characters probably didn't have the coffee bean in mind when they named him, but it's no surprise that someone eventually decided to use him to sell coffee.

What will raise an eyebrow or two, in the style of British comic actor Rowan Atkinson, is that his Mr Bean character has been adopted with full licensing rights by the Chinese to take on strong competition like Starbucks and Costa along with scores of milder contenders.

If you're aware of the bumbling, accident-prone misfit that is Mr Bean, it's safe to say smooth and sophisticated in the continental vogue is not the image China's latest chain of coffee shops wishes to convey.

Rather, the aim is toward the lighter, more relaxed and easygoing side of people's nature, to those who like a laugh and don't stand too much for any form of ceremony or ritual regarding their coffee-drinking habits.

"If you are simply looking for a cup of coffee, you can go to an array of different coffee shops, or even a pastry store that hasn't put coffee in their list until recently, but you don't go to Mr Bean Coffee," says Tino Wu, chief representative of Mr Bean Coffee, which opened in China last year. "What consumers can expect here is a totally different experience."

The Mr Bean TV show starred Atkinson in the title role as the childish misfit, who continually manages to transform everyday, mundane events into hilarious situations due to the backfiring of his various schemes and contrivances.

But that doesn't mean customers of the new coffee houses can expect funny noises from the baristas mimicking the expresso machines or funny faces as they inspect coffee-less froth.

Wu hopes - seriously - the stores will be a new hangout for people who enjoy humor in their life, pursue a simple way of living like Mr Bean, and who can make the most mundane events unexpectedly amusing.

Mr Bean, which originally surfaced in 14 half-hour episodes on UK television in the early 1990s, has achieved a massive following around the world and is now recognized as the most popular British comedy internationally. Two feature films were also made, most recently in 2007, as well as an animated series of 26 episodes. Atkinson also reprised the character for the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.

But it was only in 2010 that its producers Tiger Aspect, in which Atkinson has a stake, struck a deal with Shanghai Franchise Enterprise Management Services Company to license the rights to use the Mr Bean brand name.

"We are extremely pleased to move into this new area of business with SFC and are looking forward to increasing awareness of Mr Bean in China through the network of coffee shops," said Katherine Senior, executive producer of Mr Bean.

Currently there are only four Mr Bean coffee shops in China, with three in Shanghai and one in Wuxi, Jiangsu province. But the company plans to open 16 more by the end of 2013, mostly in large cities such as Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Beijing.

The stores feature a replica of Mr Bean's old Mini car and display on the walls various stills from the programs.

"Compared with some large coffee chains, our expansion plan is not very aggressive, because we are sort of still in a learning process," Wu says. "China's coffee market is so extensive, with so much potential, that what we have explored is only the tip of an iceberg."

But he says the concept is already proving a success in China bringing smiles to the lips of customers and franchisees, because there are too many homogenous coffee shops in the market with almost the same products and decoration.

"Ours stand out from the competition," he says. "The global popularity of Mr Bean helps promote our store and makes our branding easy, which is why we keep generating profit since opening."

Wu says the company is talking with Tiger Aspect about opening a Mr Bean Coffee shop in London, as well as about strengthening the marketing strategy and promoting the brand.

"A successful branding program is based on differentiating yourself as unique, and that means you have to give the customers a reason to come into your store," says Wu. "At Mr Bean Coffee, not only can you taste good quality coffee, British traditional afternoon tea and pastries, but also bring home a Mr Bean teddy bear, or his T-shirt."

However, just as the buffoonish character's plans go terribly awry, there are possible pitfalls that SFC and its franchisees could encounter.

The novelty of the concept and the humor behind it could be lost on many, especially in China, and may puzzle and put off potential customers.

Wu realizes the risks, but is confident of a happy ending. The humor is totally visual, endearingly simple, and mostly arises from Mr Bean's unique, if not-so-clever, solutions to problems.

"Mr Bean may be a comic masterpiece made in Britain, but everyone seems to have memories of him," he says. "We are not targeting a small group of comedy fans. What we promote is a Mr Bean lifestyle - to have a sense of humor in life, even when you are expecting a rather boring time.

"In a big city like Shanghai, where everything is go, go, go, Mr Bean's is a relaxing place full of humor, putting a pause on life.

"I'm sure everyone at some point has a bit of Mr Bean in them."

(China Daily 10/12/2012 page15)