Coffee and group think

January 22, 2010 at 2:00 am 2 comments

This post is a minor hissy fit. I’ll start off by telling you what triggered my hissy fit. I had breakfast the other day in Sydney. I usually (but not always) like to have coffee with a touch of flavouring, like vanilla or hazelnut. I know the coffee purists roll their eyes at this because I’m adulterating the coffee with yeegads, flavouring! But having been a tea drinker for most of my life (and still am), I find coffee often bitter, especially in Sydney or Melbourne where baristas tend to make coffee so strong it would put hair on your chest.

Back to the hissy fit. I ordered a cappuccino on skim with a touch of vanilla – the waitress didn’t blink an eye. But then, up scurried a barrista, who knelt down by my table and whispered that the makers of the coffee had directed the cafe owner not to provide any flavourings in their coffee. There was a moment of stunned silence on my part as I considered launching into a tirade about my democratic right, my customer right to ask for what I wanted. But occasionally I’m astute enough to know that would get me nowhere. So I asked instead for the name of the coffee makers and ordered a cappuccino without flavouring (I was assured by the barrista that I’d enjoy a fabulous cup of coffee without flavouring – sorry but I found it pretty ordinary coffee).

I won’t name the coffee makers because the point of this post is to talk about group think. So later that day I emailed the coffee company to ask them was it correct – do they direct cafe owners not to supply what the customer wants (flavouring) because it adulterates their coffee? Here is the reply (from the director of the company no less):

“Thanks for the feedback Kim. I can appreciate your view – we do not want to project ourselves as being so snobby. With our accounts, we do not order them to keep it pure. However, we do not supply flavourings either as part of our wholesale strategy, as we believe the coffee has enough flavour as it is. Of course, it is the customer’s right to ask for flavourings, and we are not trying to be purist snobs, but we cannot accommodate every single request. Our systems and benchspace are built around efficiently supplying our time short customers with their coffee as quickly as possible. Once we were to introduce a flavour, then we would have to introduce the whole range of 20 syrups with 5 flavoured sugar options. I am sorry you are disappointed, but the system is built with our customers time being the central focus, and bench space efficiency as a priority as well.

Our internal and external studies show that below 0.5% of the coffee drinking public drink flavoured coffee. I would suggest the mocha, as it is flavoured with chocolate and very popular, at 7% of our beverages sold.

We hope this answers your query. We do not like disappointing people – and please understand we are not aiming to be snobby purists – but more we are aiming to satisfy our customers as efficiently as possible.”

Do you think I’m satisfied with this? Well yes and no. It was a polite exchange but here are my issues:

  • it took me 5 minutes to get that cappuccino (so much for the efficiency argument)
  • they probably only need to supply the most popular flavourings – vanilla, caramel, hazelnut
  • they don’t need to turn themselves into a Starbucks with all the sugar options
  • anytime someone uses the word “but” it means they are negating what they just said IMHO…”we are not aiming to be snobby purists – but “….yes, we really are snobby purists
  • I’d like to see their research because a lot of my friends and colleagues, including my Deputy Chair of Standards Australia KM Committee like nothing better than a flavoured coffee. We both used to enjoy a flavoured cuppa together during our regular catch-ups before he took off to Dubai.
  • it was rather insulting for this person to think I wouldn’t know what the heck a mocha is
  • but the pièce de résistance is the 0.5% of the coffee-drinking public

Now, I like nothing better than being in the minority. Better than being a sheep but….it caused me to reply that probably only 0.5% of the coffee-drinking public prefer flavoured coffee because the flavours aren’t widely available because of ….group think.

Clive Thompson in Wired, recently had a nice little piece about how group think rules what we like. He refers to research conducted by Duncan Watts, the network-theory pioneer, who wanted to test the strength of self-fulfilling prophecies in pop culture. Thompson provides the example of Madonna – if you rewound history would Madonna be famous because of innate talent or the lucky break of being in the right place at the right time?

So Watts created a music-downloading site and uploaded 48 songs by unknown artists. People logged onto the site, listened to the songs and rated them. Other users could see the ratings and the research suggests they were influenced by what they saw. Some songs became popular whilst others wallowed at the bottom of the ratings partly because of social pressure.

Watts ran the experiment many times with over 12,000 participants. Each new group listened to the same 48 songs and the result was that different songs were popular with different groups. Watts concluded that about half of a song’s movement could be attributed to intrinsic appeal. The rest was luck.

Now it’s a slightly different suggestion but what happens when a coffee company decides it’s a snobby purist and doesn’t provide cafe houses and barristas with coffee flavours? All you can “download” is the coffee they provide – espressos, cappuccinos, double-shot short blacks etc. So groups of people trying out the coffees can only rate the popularity of what’s available and soon the message becomes “sorry, only 0.5% of the coffee-drinking public like flavoured coffee”. And that message is compounded by the fact that people who like flavoured coffees don’t end up going to this particular cafe I went to because they refuse to serve coffees with flavours. But what would happen if flavourings were widely available at all coffee houses? Would you still get the 0.5% statistic thrown in your face?

I did a spot of research. It seems the International Coffee Organization thinks flavoured coffees are a fast growing area of the coffee market. Fredericksburg Gourmet Coffee gives the finger to the snobby coffee purists and offers 44 gourmet flavoured coffees, Coffee Direct (UK) offer up Amaretto, Brandy, Rum and Cinnamon flavoured coffees and Nestlé Australia produce flavoured lattes. So guess they’re not worried about the 0.5% statistic.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Baoman  |  January 25, 2010 at 7:23 am

    This brings to mind my favorite story about ‘doing it the right way’. My close friend worked for many years as global sales director for a major New York museum’s book & gift shop was in London working a trade show. She was knackered. She took herself to a rather famous Belgium restaurant in Covet Garden for moules frits. Digging in and enjoying a well-deserved beer she was approached by a young couple who said, ‘you are eating those moules the wrong way’. She looked at them with some suspicion because at the age of 55 she figured she had eaten thousands of moules and her method had gotten the job done. However, she politely asked , ‘could you explain?’. Well, yes, of course they were happy to oblige. Moules should never be eaten with a fork or spoon, only by scooping out a moule with the half-shell of another moule. Hmm, what to do? She ignored their advice and continued using a spoon. They were not happy as they observed her from a few tables away.

    I’m drinking a cup of unflavored freshly ground french press (timed 5 minutes) coffee – black no sugar.

    Reply
  • 2. thinkingshift  |  January 25, 2010 at 8:07 am

    LOL….I have the image in my head of the couple tut-tutting because your friend wasn’t eating the moules in the proper manner. I have been in NZ for a few days and lo and behold, they have no dramas with flavours in coffees over there (and NZ’ers actually do very good coffee).

    Reply

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