Gen Z Is Brewing Up Big Business: Inside the Rapid Rise of Chamberlain Coffee

Move over, millennials—there‘s a new generation of entrepreneurs in town. Gen Z, roughly defined as those born between 1997-2012, now makes up over 20% of the U.S. population and wields an estimated $143 billion in spending power (Bank of America). But this cohort isn‘t just flexing its influence as consumers; it‘s also shaking up the business world with a distinctly Gen Z approach to brand-building.

One prime example? Chamberlain Coffee, the buzzy beverage brand founded by 21-year-old YouTube superstar Emma Chamberlain. In just two years, the company has gone from a humble DTC start-up to a retail juggernaut with a cultishly devoted Gen Z fanbase. So how did Chamberlain brew up such a frothy success story? Let‘s dive in.

The Influencer Behind the Beans

First, a bit of background on the brains behind the brand. Emma Chamberlain rose to internet fame in 2017 as a high schooler posting charmingly lo-fi vlogs from her Northern California bedroom. Her unfiltered, self-deprecating, and at times chaotic style quickly struck a chord with viewers, propelling her to the upper echelons of Gen Z influencerdom.

To understand the extent of Chamberlain‘s reach, consider these stats:

  • 15.5M YouTube subscribers and over 1.5B views (Social Blade)
  • 16.3M TikTok followers and over 325M likes (TikTok)
  • 15.5M Instagram followers with an average of 1-2M likes per post (Instagram)

Scroll through the comments of any of Chamberlain‘s social posts and you‘ll find endless variations of "I want to be her best friend." Her legion of fans don‘t just admire her style and humor; they feel a deep connection to her as a person. It‘s this potent parasocial bond that has fueled much of Chamberlain Coffee‘s success.

From Content to Coffee

Throughout her videos, one of Chamberlain‘s most prominent and relatable quirks has been her unabashed obsession with coffee. Hardly a vlog goes by without at least one Starbucks run or iced latte in hand. So when Chamberlain announced she was launching her own coffee brand in December 2020, the response from her audience was a resounding "Shut up and take my money!"

Chamberlain Coffee burst onto the scene with a focused selection of whole bean and ground coffee, plus cleverly packaged steeped cold brew bags. The cold brew quickly emerged as the brand‘s hero product, tapping into the gen Z craze for all things iced coffee. An estimated 75% of Gen Z consumers drink iced coffee weekly (Piper Sandler), so Chamberlain Coffee‘s specialty was primed to please its target demo‘s palates.

But the quality and flavor of the coffee itself is only part of the brand‘s appeal. Chamberlain Coffee‘s visual identity is steeped in Gen Z cool, from the minimalist pastel packaging to the cheeky copy and Insta-friendly accoutrements like stickers and art cards. Even the coffee names, like "Social Dog Decaf" and "Careless Cat Blend," sound like they were plucked from a hip Gen Zer‘s Twitter feed.

This carefully curated combo of product and packaging has propelled Chamberlain Coffee to astronomical sales for a brand that‘s barely out of its infancy. While the private company doesn‘t share revenue figures, a rough estimate based on social media traction and retail footprint suggests annual sales in the high seven figures.

An Omnichannel Approach

One of the most notable aspects of Chamberlain Coffee‘s business model is its balance of DTC and retail sales. Many Gen Z-founded brands have eschewed traditional retail in favor of an online-only approach, but Chamberlain Coffee has built an omnichannel strategy from the start.

The brand first launched DTC through its own website, where it continues to drop new limited-edition products and collabs. But Chamberlain Coffee wasted no time in expanding to physical retail, landing coveted shelf space in major grocery chains like Whole Foods, Target, and Walmart. The brand now boasts placement in over 5,000 retail locations nationwide—no small feat for a two-year-old company.

This early and aggressive retail push sets Chamberlain Coffee apart from other influencer-backed brands that rely almost exclusively on DTC sales. By making its products accessible to the masses, not just devoted fans willing to order online, Chamberlain Coffee has set itself up for sustainable long-term growth.

Collaboration Is Key

Another core tenet of Chamberlain Coffee‘s Gen Z marketing playbook? Strategic collaborations. The brand has become known for its unexpected and delightful product partnerships with other Gen Z-beloved companies like Swoon (matcha lemonade), Deux (cookie dough), and IGK (dry shampoo).

These limited-edition launches tend to follow a predictable but powerful formula: teased heavily on social media in the weeks prior, launched with a flurry of influencer posts and giveaways, and sold out within hours. The partner brands benefit from exposure to Chamberlain‘s rabid fanbase, while Chamberlain Coffee racks up valuable earned media and access to new audiences.

The pinnacle of Chamberlain Coffee‘s collab strategy to date was the September 2022 "Chamberlain Café" pop-up at Alfred Coffee‘s famed Melrose Place location in LA. For one weekend, the store was transformed into a Gen Z wonderland with exclusive coffee drinks, limited merch, and photo-worthy installations. Fans lined up around the block and the pop-up reportedly raked in over $250K in sales.

Customers line up at the Chamberlain Coffee pop-up cafe

Chamberlain Coffee fans lined up around the block for the brand‘s Alfred Coffee pop-up in LA (Source: Colourbox)

The experiential activation was a master class in IRL community building and cemented Chamberlain Coffee‘s status as Gen Z‘s coffee brand of choice. Expect to see more physical pop-ups and events from the brand as it continues to scale.

The Gen Z Brand Playbook

While Chamberlain Coffee is certainly a unique case study, its success offers valuable lessons for other brands hoping to capture the hearts (and wallets) of Gen Z consumers. Some key takeaways:

  1. Authenticity is everything. Chamberlain Coffee works because it feels like a natural extension of its founder‘s persona, not a forced cash grab. The products, voice, and mission all align with Chamberlain‘s brand and values.

  2. Community is currency. Chamberlain Coffee has cultivated a tight-knit community of fans who feel personally invested in the brand‘s success. This loyal base not only buys the products but also creates invaluable user-generated content and word-of-mouth buzz.

  3. Retail still rules. While DTC is a crucial channel for driving discovery and loyalty, true scale requires an omnichannel approach. Chamberlain Coffee has proven that Gen Z brands can win at retail by staying true to their identity and iterating quickly.

So what‘s next for Chamberlain Coffee? With its current momentum, the brand seems poised to continue its category domination and perhaps even expand into new product lines. RTD lattes, flavored creamers, and snacks all seem like natural extensions for the coffee-centric brand.

As for Chamberlain herself, her star only continues to rise. In addition to being the face of her brand, she‘s also become a bona fide fashion icon, scoring covers of magazines like Vogue and Cosmopolitan and a brand ambassadorship with Louis Vuitton. At just 21, she‘s already accomplished what many entrepreneurs twice her age only dream of.

One thing is certain: Gen Z is just getting started in the business world, and brands like Chamberlain Coffee offer an exciting glimpse into the future of entrepreneurship and consumer culture. The old rules no longer apply—it‘s time to wake up and smell the (iced) coffee.