Sensory Marketing to Jolt Espresso Sales


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.

  1. pinotdrnkr says

    Nice try, but the real reason that the coffee tastes better is the temp of the water. Commercial machines operate at a much higher temp than home machines, unless you specifically buy a brand with that function (many of which can’t be sold in this country I am told).
    No Starbucks smells as good as your typical French/Italian cafe which seems to have the aromas imbedded in the woodwork.
    Too much emphasis on cleaning solutions, in my opinion.

  2. Ben Sykes says

    you can sell limes, you can sell coronas, you can sell lawn chairs, and umbrellas, but if you sell them together, now you’re not selling products, you’re selling an experience!!.. A good time. Its called a relational processor.. otherwise known as your brain!! One thing is viewed in relation to something else, a series of neuroprocesses which trigger the hypothalmus, which makes up a batch of happy, sad etc.. and then shoots that chemical into your blood stream/cellular walls.. an emotion.. so collective thought is matched with chemicals to create a memory.. generally speaking of course. Please tell me I’m not the only one who thinks this way..

  3. gregory says

    sure, ben, you’re not the only one who thinks that way… but the whole thing has a much deeper event series going on than even this blog understands… it is consiousness, and it is being projected, not received, except after the fact…. neuroscience makes most yogis just smile, nod their heads tolerantly, and continue on with being in reality…

  4. cherie says

    Interesting. But this does not explain why i go to Starbucks and go through the drivethrough. I keep asking myself why I am paying that kind of money, but it is the best treat I can think of.

  5. Roger Dooley says

    Cherie, perhaps you are trying to capture the in-store experience. I often buy Starbucks coffee at a supermarket outlet, even though I spend minimal time in the coffee shop. I guess I am programmed…


  6. deejaayss says

    Caffeine is addictive.

    Starbucks coffee is burned and bitter. You need to add a lot of sugar.

    Sugar is addictive.

  7. monica says

    Peet’s for the Win! Peet’s coffee tastes leaps and bounds better to me than Starbucks, and now with this perspective, I have to admit I like their brand better as well. To me the Peet’s brand is more earthy, more reminiscent of a coffee shop that used to exist before the multi-national corporate invasion on the Western retail coffee industry. The Peet’s retail brand seems less starchy, less working professional trying to be free. It’s darker in the stores, but not necessarily too dark. With their CD listening stations and the glossy curved tables illuminated by all that white and green business, Starbucks has lost me.

  8. factician says

    Yet another reason that you can’t reproduce good coffee at home is that the coffee beans/grounds that you buy (in most stores – including Starbucks) is stale. I buy my coffee from a local roaster, and I can tell the difference between the fresh pack of coffee that I buy, and the old one that I’ve just finished. The old one, having been in the house for 3 weeks as I work my way through it, is stale. The fresh one smells better just opening the bag and smelling it.

    Good coffee places buy their coffee fresh roasted. Even Starbucks coffee is fresher than the stuff that you buy in the store (and fresher than the stuff that they sell in little 1 lb bags to consumers). That said, I would call Starbucks coffee decent coffee, but certainly not good coffee.

  9. mur says

    I don’t know if it was the aroma that sold me on Nespresso, but I’ve had one for several years (the C-190 concept machine), and have barely darkened the door of a Starbucks since I bought the Nespresso. The espresso itself is far better than I’ve made with other home machines. Their website is interesting, and tries to evoke the dreamy, pleasurable experiences that accompany a good espresso, although I could do without the heavy graphics & music. I’d rather just mainline straight to the coffee.

    Maybe I got hoodwinked into purchasing it based on aromas…but who cares. I have incredible coffee at the press of a lever with almost no clean up required. I’m hooked, full of java, and happy.

  10. tsurikomi says

    pinotdrnkr, unless the laws of psychics don’t apply, water can only get to 100 C before becoming steam and a lot of home systems easily achieve boiling point when making coffee.

  11. Roland says

    I’ve probably bought the tastiest coffees in the probably dingiest hell holes… in Naples and Salerno, Italy. I think people who have a broader, er, experience of coffee will not be totally swayed by the shop in which it is served – but people given the no-difference coffee option will have it in the nicer shop. Me? I’ll take the better coffee where i can get it… and that’s often at home.

    And I generally tell the people who want hazelnut-decaf-lattes-with soy to have a cup of tea, because that’s not a coffee.

  12. DailyCaveat says

    Water temperature is a key component in keeping “off” flavors out of your coffee. Most home brewers do not maintain a high enough temperature to really get the most out of your beans. Grinding at home can also introduce problems. Those little blade grinders generated boulders and dust, meaning you are overextracting and underextracting creating more off flavors. If you are buying off the supermarket shelf, you are definitely getting an aged product in most cases, and coffee, once roasted, is on the clock. Pre-ground is a whole ‘nother level dessicated nastiness. Try buying from a reputable roaster who doesn’t burn or flavor their beans to cover imperfections. I would suggest checking out Counter Culture out of NC, Intelligentsia out of Chicago, Stumptown out of Portland or Terroir out of MA. Any of these excellent roasters will blow away the crappy over-roasted Starbucks funk you have been consuming. All of these companies focus on the best single varietals which highlight the unique flavors of various coffee regions and individual crops from any given year. Take your fresh roasted beans, buy a decent home grinder (Baratza) and quality home machine (a Technivorm electric or ye olde french presse) and make some real java. Just my advice.

  13. andrea99boban says

    Hi there, interesting subject I would like to contribute to.
    Extraction liquid-solids is influenced by solid specific ext area (average area for 1 grain bit), distribution of areas (grain bits uniformity), liquid used (water in this case) and water/steam temperature.
    If you grind grains at home, you’re not obtaining uniform grains, and therefore the extraction will take out “very much” from smallest bits, and very little from bigger ones. Keeping constant the ground matter, temperature is very important, as if decided and controlled can lead to a fine tuning of extracted substances efficiency-and therefore aroma shape.
    More. If you buy ground coffe in vacuum-packed bags, a lot of aroma is just about to spring out as you open the bag, effect which is created by the internal vacuum.
    The best way to pack ground coffee is “under nitrogen pressure”: the pack is pressurized, aroma is safe into each grain bit. Ready for the cup.
    I don’t think the environment is so important for good food, I am Italian and I assure you that a bar or a big fancy restaurant which cannot make a perfect coffee, can last very little here, although they may have taken great care of their place outlook.
    Maybe my taste and the prevailing american taste are very different, but everytime I try abroad some DoubleCoffee or Starbucks I feel the coffee acid, overroasted (vey good way to mask bad coffee) and incredibly expensive.
    Probably this is why these coffee-chains will never enter Italy. Try to use at home Italian brands as Illy or Vergnano, just for science sake 😉 and then reconsider the matter!

  14. Julie Gomoll says

    Quality of experience and quality of coffee go hand in hand. A good coffee shop gets popular by having both.

    Roland – your experience of having the “tastiest coffees in the probably dingiest hell holes? in Naples and Salerno, Italy” is great! Don’t you think having coffee in a place like that added to the whole experience? I know some of the best food I’ve ever had was in off-the-beaten-path places on my travels. Would the same food been as wonderful at my kitchen table on a Monday night? No way.

  15. TJD says

    “Commercial machines operate at a much higher temp than home machines”

    Not true with espresso. The cheap home espresso machines use steam pressure, which means it uses boiling water. This creates inferior coffee as compared to the high end commercial espresso machines that use pumps to create the pressure and use water BELOW the boiling point. Water too hot = bitter over extracted coffee.

  16. Nick Southcote says

    Great article!!!
    I was wondering if you had read Brand Sense? Great book on the consepts and some case studies of Full Sensory Branding.

    There is a great part of the book talking about how, at one time, people associated certain sensory experiences with Starbucks. The sound of the machines and SOUR MILK! Needless to say, the author explains, how they closed thousands of stores and did some cleaning.

    I found that to be hilarious! But imagine what effect that had on sales.

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