Can You Taste the Brand in Your Coffee?


Whether at home, in a coffee shop or in the workplace, our surroundings also have a big impact on where and when we choose to savor the moment. Although personal preferences may differ, we all recognize the range of factors that influence our purchasing decisions when it comes to coffee.

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Another factor that we may, or may not, consider is the power of the brand. Multinational coffee chains know the importance of this and invest huge amounts into researching, strengthening and protecting their brand identity in the pursuit of keeping consumer loyalty. Likewise, attracting customers and keeping their custom is crucial to commercial success for the independent specialty coffee shops and roasteries.

But how important is the ‘brand effect’ in the specialty coffee industry and, indeed, if we judge coffee primarily on taste alone, does it actually matter? Surprisingly, there is little research in the public domain that investigates how branding has an impact on sensory perception from a neuro-scientific perspective, and therefore our own buying preferences.

What is a brand? A brand defines brand as a set of associations that a person—or group of people—makes with a company, product, service, individual or organization.

—Source: Design Council

The Study

In an effort to shed some light on this area, Imane Bouzidi, a neuro-marketing researcher at Copenhagen Business School decided to investigate the role of the brand effect in a behavioral study of customers’ preference towards four coffee-chain brands in the Danish market.

Based on sensory, marketing and neuro-scientific measurement methods, the study explores the effect of brand equity and customer motivations that lead to choosing one particular brand of coffee over another. Featuring a well-known international coffee brand and three national high street coffee brands, the test was conducted with a representative sample of 122 randomly chosen participants aged between 20-40 years of age, equally distributed between male and female who live in Denmark.

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However, the four branded samples did not feature the coffee from the original suppliers; they contained only two different types of coffee – high and low quality – roasted by Copenhagen-based roaster Kontra. The respondents were presented in chronological order with two high quality coffees and two low quality coffees which were then reversed in order to optimize the gathering of statistical results. The test was broken down into the following three steps:

  1. Measuring brand pre-assumptions and associations
    These results represent a consumers’ liking estimations
  2. Measuring the amount of coffee consumed from the samples
    These results represent a consumers’ wanting estimations
  3. Final measurement of sample coffee consumed and preference
    These results represent the relation between their wanting vs liking estimations

The study assumed that customers’ pre-assumptions will be connected to their final brand of choice. It was also supposed that they will prefer the taste (e.g. liking) and consume more (e.g. wanting) of the high quality than the low quality coffee provided.

How Are Consumers Influenced by the ‘Brand Effect’?

The study shows that there is more to taste preference than taste alone. Through sensory and statistical analysis, Bouzidi was able to identify a clear correlation between the level of brand equity and consumer preference. She found that motivations, responses and taste experiences were greatly influenced by their brand expectations and assumptions which resulted in the respondents consuming more of the brand that they preferred — regardless of quality. This indicates that there is a strong connection between liking and pre-assumptions of a particular brand that guides our own personal preferences and buying decisions.

From a scientific perspective, the study explored the two mechanisms that simultaneously play a subconscious and conscious role in our decision making processes. Recent developments in neuroscience have found that motivation can be a conscious response (e.g. liking) while unconscious reflexes (e.g. wanting) have distinctly different neuro-pathways.

Notably, the wanting system is thought to have a strong and direct impact actual on decision making by activating the mesolimbic dopamine pathway in the striatum area of the brain. Conversely, the subjective liking system that stimulates the release of opioids in the orbitofrontal cortex area of the brain is related to taste experience; a motivational force that influences our choice behaviors. Although these two different brain circuits are affected by emotions, Imane indicates that neuro-imaging techniques show how both appear to be driving forces in consumer choice (see figure 4).

In highlighting the role of the brand as a value-based asset that can motivate consumers to make a purchasing decision by triggering certain emotions and feelings, Bouzidi makes an interesting observation. She argues that as brands become more persuasive in their visibility and diversity, consumers are increasingly using brands to construct their own self-identity. As a result, buying behavior has shifted from being part of an information-led economy to an experience-based economy where the consumer searches for self-promotion and individuality. More than a logo or product, she suggests that brands are intangible tools that have the power to motivate consumers to make purchasing decisions which stimulate emotional and pleasure receptors in the brain at both the conscious and unconscious level.

“This study allows smaller coffee shops to examine their consumer likings and positive associations, so that they can assess which values they need to maintain or further develop in order to compete with more dominant international coffee brands”.

— Imane Bouzidi, Neuro-marketing Lecturer, Market Research Specialist and Business Strategist at Copenhagen Business School

Figure 1: The coffee tasting test

Overall, the findings demonstrated that the coffee associated with the international brand had an extremely positive effect. It was also the most consumed coffee in the test and scored the highest for preferred taste. Compared with the three other national brands, the participants consistently demonstrated a strong bond with the coffee that has the highest brand equity. They also associated this brand with several positive statements; even when the sample being tasted contained the lower quality of the two coffees presented in the study (see figure 2 and 3).

Figure 2: Tasting test – perception vs brand by quality

Figure 3: Tasting test – consumption vs brand by quality

In response to the findings, Bouzidi said: “The results of the study were incredibly revealing about the effect of brand equity on consumer preference. In both the liking and wanting measurements, the respondents liked the taste of the international coffee brand better than the competitors in both the low and high quality coffees – indicating that it didn’t matter which quality of coffee the samples contained. In relation to wanting measurements, the participants consumed most of the international brand regardless of quality. Another observation was that the international brand was the coffee that the majority of respondents chose ‘to go.’”

Figure 4: Connecting value-based decision making with the theory of wanting and liking systems

While it can be argued that consumers in specialty coffee may be more discerning in their purchasing decisions, the findings contain a valuable message for coffee shop owners and roasters as they seek to craft their brand within an increasingly competitive marketplace. Bouzidi concludes: “We must keep in mind that most customers are very quality and price-orientated. It is important for coffee brands to build a strong reputation and deliver the right product at the right time but, importantly, they need to be asking themselves ´what likable experience did I serve my customer today?’ Customers search for self-promotion and individuality — a successful coffee brand’s job is to serve it”.

In an industry where taste experience, favorable surroundings and positive associations all add to the enjoyment of specialty coffee, the study highlights how high brand equity can help to boost customer loyalty. Moreover, the study shows that brand awareness and perceived quality also reflect the cognitive mechanisms that stimulate the conscious liking and unconscious wanting systems that influence consumer preference.

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About the Research Team

The research was conducted at the Copenhagen Business School by Neuro-marketing Lecturer, Market Research Specialist and Business Strategist, Imane Bouzidi. She has spent five years researching consumer behavior, analyzing market research data, managing B2B marketing projects, and has consulted start-up companies as well as assisting Nordic brand developments. Imane believes that nurturing brand equity is the key to commercial success. The research was supervised by Thomas Ramsøy, former Director of Center for Decision Neuroscience at Copenhagen Business School and CEO of Neurons Inc. Morten Münchow, external lecturer at Department of Food Science, University of Copenhagen and founder of CoffeeMind, co-supervised the project on behalf of the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA).