One of the keys to the phenomenal success of Starbucks has been that its stores offer a consistent and appealing sensory experience. The music, colors, and lighting are all important, but clearly the wonderful coffee aroma is what dominates one’s senses on entering a Starbucks outlet. I enjoy brewing Starbucks coffee at home, too, but it never seems quite the same as when I consume it in the actual shop. It turns out that I’m not alone, and that my coffee maker isn’t the entire problem. Yes, coffee in the coffee shop DOES taste better, but not for the reasons you might expect. Research from another coffee maker, Nespresso, shows that 60% of sensory experience of drinking espresso comes from the retail environment!

Nespresso, a subsidiary of food giant Nestle, was faced with a dilemma created by this sensory experience quirk. It had created a home espresso-making system that produced espresso that tasted just as good as what you could find in a coffee shop. Unfortunately, consumers didn’t recognize that. Neuromarketing readers shouldn’t be too surprised – after all, wine thought to be produced in North Dakota apparently tasted a lot worse than wine from California, even though it was poured from the same bottles. (See Wine and the Spillover Effect.) It’s not a big shock that home-brewed espresso might not seem as tasty as what you get in a coffee shop. This “source bias,” along with the improved sensory experience in the shop environment, stacks the deck against home-prepared espresso no matter how good it actually tastes.

Martin Lindstrom’s video blog describes what Nestle did to try to beat these ingrained consumer perceptions. First, they launched upscale coffee shops in major cities for the primary purpose of creating the high-intensity sensory experience people expect, but also with the intention of showing customers they could get the same high-quality espresso at home.

The second thing they did was to modify the home espresso-making system to release more aroma. This is a brilliant and, I can testify, often overlooked strategy. A couple of years ago I purchased a Melitta coffee-maker. It really did make superb coffee. In addition to brewing it properly, it stored the product in an insulated stainless steel pot. (This avoids the flavor degradation that occurs when brewed coffee sits on a heating element for more than a short while.) While not hermetically sealed, the brewed coffee was injected directly into the pot with virtually no exposure to room air. This may be good for preserving the flavor, but you can guess the problem: very little aroma escapes. My previous Braun coffeemaker was far less sophisticated, but it could be counted on to fill the house with the enticing aroma of freshly-brewing coffee. I was a bit disappointed with that aspect of the Melitta unit, but assumed it was a byproduct of their efficient brewing and storage design. Little did I know that at Nespresso engineers were aware of the aroma effect and working to correct it on their units. (I now have a dual function Krups machine. Its drip brewing side spews steam from the top and the collecting pot has vents, so on that side the aroma is fine. The espresso side also releases lots of aroma, but, to put it charitably, it doesn’t quite make me think I’m in the corner cafe. )

I doubt if many consumer firms have taken as many steps to improve the sensory appeal of their products as Nespresso has. Not only did they modify the product itself to improve the sensory experience, they launched an entirely new channel (their branded coffee shops) just to address the perceived sensory gap in the home environment. Few companies may want to open up a chain of retail shops, but just about every company could benefit from a sensory review of their brand and key products.

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