When Coffee Drinkers Don’t Share our Tastes

By Tracy Ging, S&D Coffee and Tea, Inc.

NY TIMES“It tastes like soap,” squealed one of the second graders treated to a seven-course, $220 tasting meal at Daniel. The comparison to soap wasn’t even the half of it—the kids thought some of the dishes were disgusting, the pasta course was “meh,” and they basically didn’t like most of what was served. But what’s so charming about this video is how they seemed to enjoy the experience regardless. Going on the adventure was fun; the flavor was secondary.

At this year’s SCAA Symposium, I presented results from an extensive research study on young coffee drinkers. A key finding was that their coffee choices seemed less and less about the bean, and more about the build—meaning the entire beverage experience, from how the ingredients are chosen and sourced, to how they are crafted, and including how they are served. To be clear, I wasn’t suggesting that coffee and coffee quality are not supremely important. Rather, I was trying to point out that there is more, much more, to the habits and motivations of the newest generation of coffee drinkers. For the coffee industry, this means taking a look at a changing consumer landscape and the entire value proposition we offer to our customers.

Photo by Market Lane Coffee on FlickrCoffee drinkers consistently value cleanliness, convenience, and friendliness of staff just as much as they do things like freshness and consistency. Creativity of menu, atmosphere, and watching someone prepare their drink—just for them—aren’t too far behind. Sourcing practices, a commitment to sustainability, and company ethics register strongly too. There are over a dozen significant drivers that come into play when a coffee drinker chooses where to go which don’t involve how the coffee actually tastes.

This isn’t an “either/or” proposition, but clearly an issue of “and”—the young coffee drinkers we surveyed expected a lot. Dr. Sean Cash made this point for all consumers, regardless of age, in his Symposium presentation, which followed mine. Decisions are made across a spectrum of attributes, some of which are objective like convenience (“search attributes”), more subjective like flavor preferences and ambience (“experiential attributes”), and some are much harder to define. This latter category, which Dr. Cash described as “credence attributes,” are more about emotion and trust.

Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 12.47.27 PMI presented attributes similar to the ones that Dr. Cash discussed, but using Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a reference. With that, I categorized the objective attributes, or search attributes, more as basic needs equivalent to air, food, and water. Other attributes, like how a person “feels” about a particular company, were higher-order attributes in my model. I suggested that once the basics are taken care of, one can move up through a more nuanced set of aspirational and enlightened drivers. I now think I was off, and I’ll explain why.

It’s very likely that market research picks up the objective or basic drivers as most important because that is what people know how to express. For something like convenience, there are reference points. But for more subjective attributes, things like taste, there may not be an established reference set. A younger coffee drinker, or any new coffee drinker for that matter, walks into a cafe not necessarily with expectations from the palate, but rather with a silent trust—that they will be taken care of and they will have an experience worth having. This is why I think the Maslow’s reference is off. The basic need is not convenience or cleanliness, it is the care and attention they receive, or how they feel about a particular experience.

The second graders dining at Daniel didn’t walk in with pre-defined expectations, with an idea of tasting caviar, or what that caviar should taste like…they simply walked in with a sense of adventure. It was beautiful to see the chef and the staff at the restaurant building trust right along with these new, young patrons. They welcomed them as individuals, and didn’t try to “educate” them about the food, but rather focused on the discovery and adventure aspects. When the kids didn’t like something, their feedback wasn’t met with agitation—it was a prompt for conversation.

In his talk, Dr. Cash also said something very compelling to the effect of, “it’s hard to tell someone their experience is wrong.” None of the second-graders were made to feel wrong for not caring for the pasta dish. They were still treated to amazing food, chosen by the chef, impeccable service, and a little surprise and delight at the end. They were not treated as “foodies” but as foodies in the making, deserving of even more extra care and attention.

Ging Digital ExtraSo, in my talk at this year’s Symposium, when I made points about it being more about the build rather than the bean, how young coffee drinkers lean toward coffee drinks, and favor sweet, I wasn’t suggesting the finest “chefs” of our industry go the way of coffee’s Kraft Mac‘n’Cheese equivalent: the dreaded Snickerdoodle Latte. I was, however, urging recognition that these things—such as a propensity for sweet—are true for young coffee drinkers today. Beating them over the head with the merits of fine caviar will not change that. Young coffee drinkers don’t yet share our tastes, and no matter how nuanced and buttery and cherry, chocolate, or lime a coffee is, that will not be enough to build trust with someone just stepping into the specialty coffee experience. To these consumers, how they feel—not what they taste—is more important in the beginning.

Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 2.14.47 PMBasic needs states are not the basis for differentiation, (see diagram above). I view this idea as a huge opportunity, not by any means a sacrifice of quality or all the work that has been done to distinguish specialty coffee from commercial. In fact, it opens up far more possibilities. Product differentiation can still occur, as can sourcing, sustainability, and process differentiation (i.e., the craft). In addition, specialty can differentiate more aggressively on ambience, on all ingredients, and with creativity. But, there is also an opportunity to differentiate on the pure adventure of it all—to welcome young coffee drinkers, new coffee drinkers, into the specialty experience in a much bigger way, meeting their most basic need of feeling good and even excited about what we have to offer.

As specialty coffee professionals, the bean is our sacred cow. But for those purists among us, I suggest that we begin to think beyond the bean and explore ways to meet our customers at their entry point into coffee exploration, rather than expecting them to appreciate the seven-course meal. They won’t appreciate what we’re serving for them, or develop fluency in the language of specialty coffee, before they’ve even had a chance to poke around. At the beginning, it isn’t what they taste that most defines the experience, it is how we make them feel. The most important thing is that we show them how fun it is to explore, and that is something that goes well beyond the bean.

Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 11.35.14 AMTracy Ging is Vice President of Sustainability and Strategic Initiatives for S&D Coffee and Tea, Inc. Her responsibilities span sustainable supply chain development, environmental efficiency in operations and distribution, workplace performance, and community affairs—weaving sustainability into core business strategies. With nearly twenty years of experience in the food & beverage industry, Tracy is deeply and personally committed to making sure coffee drinkers enjoy their favorite beverages with the confidence of responsible sourcing practices.