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A study from SCA explores the way in which coffee’s linguistic descriptions can influnce sales

The researchers: "Regardless of what words are used (and how), a verbal description must create accurate flavor expectations for the consumer. Describing smell and taste is often challenging, with most people having a limited vocabulary for these sensory experiences. While many coffee professionals are trained to identify flavors in coffee, the average consumer may lack this level of experience—raising questions about the average consumer’s ability to understand flavor descriptions. We conducted two online experiments with coffee consumers to answer two questions pivotal to the overarching problem outlined above: What type of words resonate best with consumers? Do brief descriptions (common in coffee) work, or are full sentences (as used by wine experts) more effective?"

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Cognitive psychologist Bente Klein Hazebroek and language professor Ilja Croijmans explore the role and construction of coffee’s linguistic descriptions — the flavor notes and descriptions across coffee packaging and websites — in a consumer’s willingness to pay. Jenn Rugolo, Sca editor, talks about the origins of the project. The full article was published in 25,issue 20 in SCA official website and can be found here.

Words of attraction: can attractive linguistic descriptions lead to more attractive coffee for consumers?

Introduction by Jenn Rugolo

“All the way back in early 2020, when we were preparing the never-to-be-printed Issue 12, a colleague introduced me to Dr. Ilja Croijmans, a researcher working to understand the effect of flavor expertise on the way wine and coffee experts describe and memorize smells and tastes, amid preparing for Sensory Summit.

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A study Ilja conducted in 2014 was fascinating—it compared the strategies and consistency of wine and coffee professionals in describing both wine and coffee—but it was completed before specialty coffee had the common set of flavor references provided by the World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon.

We hatched a plan: Ilja would write a feature on some of his earlier studies for Issue 12 and collect “fresh” data with the Sensory Summit attendees, which he’d write up as an online exclusive. In both features, he highlighted the increasing importance of flavor descriptors with the rise of e-commerce and suggested different ways for coffee professionals to practice and improve their use of descriptive language.

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Although it’s difficult to untangle with so many things happening all around the same time, I can see some of the ways in which Ilja’s work with the SCA across Sensory Summit, 25, and then Re:co Symposium have fed into the beta version of the Coffee Value Assessment, particularly in terms of the descriptive assessment’s use of olfactory references. (During the writing of the Coffee Sensory and Cupping Handbook, we would confirm the use of references as sensory science testing best practice, but Ilja’s work was the first time I personally encountered this idea outside of a scientific sensory panel.)

What I didn’t know is that this same flurry of collaboration would seed a new research idea that would only come to fruition three years later with master’s student, Bente Klein Hazebroek.

Earlier this year, Ilja reached out to share a newly published paper, “Let’s Talk Over Coffee: Exploring the Effect of Coffee Flavour Descriptions on Consumer Imagery and Behavior,” that he co-wrote with Bente. Given just how important flavor descriptors seem to be in all kinds of purchase contexts, Bente and Ilja wanted to know: do the kinds of descriptive words we use on packaging matter when it comes to a consumer’s willingness to pay?

Their full writeup in Food Quality and Preference is rich with detail—I was particularly interested to see the full descriptors they used, as well as the questions they asked the study participants—and I would recommend you dig into the open-access release, if you’re interested!

For this issue, however, we asked them to take a step back and combine an overview of the study findings, underpinning theory, and practical tips for coffee professionals to apply in real-world settings (just as Ilja did in his Issue 12 feature). There’s even a nod to the increasing use of artificial intelligence, particularly in the context of suggesting coffee descriptors based on cupping notes, which feels incredibly timely”.

The research by cognitive psychologist Bente Klein Hazebroek and language professor Ilja Croijmans

Specialty coffee can be a labyrinth for consumers, with different origins, processing methods, roasts, and blends, each combination producing a unique array of flavors and strengths.

Sensory attributes are pivotal in guiding consumers through this vast selection, but the way coffee is sold both in person and online makes it difficult, if not impossible, for consumers to smell or taste what’s on offer before they decide to purchase it. This is where sensory marketing comes in: both peer reviewed research and market research from the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) show consumers appreciate flavor information before making a purchase. This strategy emphasizes a product’s sensory properties, enabling them to stand out to the consumer.

A clear example of this can be found on page 19 in Fabiana Carvalho’s feature on crossmodal sensory perception and packaging, where she explores how the color of a coffee’s packaging can give consumers an indication of the coffee’s flavor. But another way—long championed by the wine industry and adopted by the coffee industry in more recent years—is to simply use language to inform consumers, providing a description that details different aspects of the flavor that you can expect. Language can be a solution to a consumer’s inability to “try before they buy.

But the language we use—and the way in which we use it—plays an important role in terms of how written or verbal descriptions of a coffee may be received. First, there are lots of different kinds of descriptions someone might use: “source words,” which refer to other established objects with a well-known and defined sensory profile (e.g., “honey,” “pear,” or “chocolate”); “abstract words,” or adjectives that may be derived from a source but are widely applicable across domains (e.g., “sweet,” “acidic,” or “mild”); or “evaluative words,” which explicitly relate to a sense of preference or liking (e.g., “exciting,” “distinct,” or “appealing”). Then, there’s the way in which these kinds of descriptions are presented: are they presented as single words (e.g., the way many “cupping notes” are) or long sentences (maybe even paragraphs)? Do they relate to a particular order of sensory experience (e.g., aroma, flavor, mouthfeel) or are they jumbled together?

Regardless of what words are used (and how), a verbal description must create accurate flavor expectations for the consumer. Describing smell and taste is often challenging, with most people having a limited vocabulary for these sensory experiences.

While many coffee professionals are trained to identify flavors in coffee, the average consumer may lack this level of experience—raising questions about the average consumer’s ability to understand flavor descriptions. We conducted two online experiments with coffee consumers to answer two questions pivotal to the overarching problem outlined above: What type of words resonate best with consumers? Do brief descriptions (common in coffee) work, or are full sentences (as used by wine experts) more effective?

Testing descriptions for imagery and willingness to pay

In the first experiment, consumers[1] were shown the image of a product page for a coffee on a web shop with variations only in the description used so that we could test different types of words in the descriptions we explained above: source words (“honey,” “chocolate”), abstract words (“sweet,” “mild”), evaluative words (“exciting,” “distinct”), and combinations of the three.

In the second experiment,[2] we manipulated the sentence structure to understand if the context in which these words are presented was important to consumers. To do this, we compared a description of six words (honey, chocolate, acidic, mild, exciting, distinct) with full sentences of different types: plain “stative” sentences, sensory constructions (where the description follows a drinkers’ sensory experience, which wine experts often use), or even more metaphorical constructions (“a walk in wonderland”).

Importantly, the same “six-word descriptions” were at the heart of all the different versions, so that we could compare the impact of the sentence structures. In both experiments, we asked participants how much they were willing to pay for a bag of 500 g of the described coffee.

We also asked how vividly they imagined the coffee based on the description and how much the description made them want to taste/try the coffee.

Do the kinds of words we use matter? The first experiment found that concrete source terms were seen as most informative, helping the consumers to form a mental image of the coffee’s flavor as well as positively influencing their desire to taste. Consumers were also willing to pay more for coffee described with “source” words over those described with only “evaluative” or “abstract” words. There were large differences between the consumers, but on average, when a product description featured concrete source words, people were willing to pay about 20 percent, or £1, more, compared with when using only abstract or evaluative words not a trivial effect.

Do the types and structures of the sentences used to describe flavor matter? The results of the second experiment were less clear: across all the different types of full-sentence descriptors, results were roughly the same, but these all differed significantly from descriptions using single words. It suggests that consumers found descriptive sentences more informative than a series of descriptive words. While this effect was smaller, it was still significant, with consumers allocating on average about £0.50 more to the coffee described using sentences compared with the coffee described using just words.

“There’s no doubt that descriptions (and visualizations) can help set expectations or spark desire in consumers even when you’re unable to offer a sample of a product’s taste or smell.”

“Grounding” mental aimulations in lived experience

Why does our word choice and sentence structure impact something like a consumer’s “willingness to pay”? Research suggests that it is difficult to imagine how something smells or tastes actively. Think of a bonfire: for most people—especially for those untrained in sensory evaluation—the flickering flame (sight) or the crackling of the fire (sound) are much easier to conjure in your imagination than the aroma of smoke (smell).

However, language describing smell and taste can still engage our senses by activating flavor simulations—if we have some initial experience with what’s being described. Esther Papies, Lawrence Barsalou, and Dorottya Rusz proposed a scientific theory explaining how we build on previous experiences to interpret new information, called “the grounded cognition theory of desire,” which helps us to understand how our brain interprets coffee descriptions.

Let’s imagine that someone is selling coffee that they describe as being like “a cronut filled with strawberry cream, drizzled with salted caramel.” First, your brain automatically tries to activate memories of previous experiences that you may have had, and that are relevant. In this example, you may not have had the lucky opportunity to eat a cronut, but a memory of an instance when you ate a sundae with salted caramel might be reactivated: how sweet and creamy it tasted, perhaps the contrast between the deep and complex caramel and cold velvety texture of the ice cream, how sunny it was that day, and how much you enjoyed the friends who were with you.

And, if you know what a cronut is (it’s like a sweet, deep-fried croissant), you may also activate memories of croissants. This step is called “simulation” in the theory of grounded cognition. Simulation happens automatically, and according to the grounded cognition theory, helps us make sense of language.

But it doesn’t always happen to the same extent—that depends on the cue(s). Our research findings suggest that, for the participants, concrete words in sentences worked better than words alone in provoking a vivid imagined flavor of the coffee.

These kinds of simulations can be triggered not only by words or sentences, but also by images on social media, colors on packaging, associations you may have with music, sounds, smells, etc. A whole area of research is nowadays dedicated to uncovering the associations that people may have with specific aspects of a product—sensory marketing[3]—and marketeers happily take advantage of the findings of this area.

But simulations are not the final step. These simulations increase (or in rare cases, decrease) appetite and desire, and this desire is then projected on the product that is described (or pictured, packaged, advertised, etc.).

A mere description may spark desire in a potential consumer—and if they are able to purchase it (i.e., there are no financial or physical constraints), they will. In our study, we asked people how much they were willing to pay for the coffee described, which allowed us to link their visualization of the product to how much they desired it, and subsequently, how much they were willing to pay for it. The willingness to pay was the final step in our study, but of course, the actual act of purchasing something, in an online web shop or in a physical store, is the real endpoint of this theory. By providing descriptions or other cues, consumers can link what they know and have experienced before to what is on offer in front of them, or what they might expect in something they’ve never experienced—a fresh-crop coffee, for example.

The study suggests that language is a powerful tool to shape consumer expectations and desire to taste.

However, this study had limitations. First, not every consumer is the same; in this study, participants were not necessarily specialty coffee consumers, but did buy whole bean coffee regularly. Experienced specialty coffee drinkers are more likely to understand (or be comfortable with) more elaborate language. It is therefore important to tailor descriptions to your audience, or to an individual.

Other factors may also affect experience in a broader sense, such as the language you speak, or the role that food and beverages generally play in a culture. And then we haven’t discussed, or researched, the influence of individual differences yet (consumer education level, decreased sense of smell, or “aphantasia”—the inability to conjure imagery in your mind’s eye).

There’s no doubt that descriptions (and visualizations) can help set expectations or spark desire in consumers even when you’re unable to offer a sample of a product’s taste or smell. Although specialty coffee was previously more concerned with “scoring quality,” the SCA’s Coffee Value Assessment is now asking users to “describe quality”—and we are excited to see how this will translate to the words coffee professionals use (and the ways they use them) when describing coffee.

About the authors

Bente Klein Hazebroek  is a cognitive psychologist with an interest in linguistics, sensory marketing, and cross-modal perception. Working as a barista during her studies, she decided to focus her graduate work on coffee consumer psychology—resulting in the featured study.

Ilja Croijmans is an assistant professor at Radboud University’s Centre for Language Studies specializing in smell and taste descriptions and persuasive communication. He obtained his PhD in 2018 with his dissertation, Flavor Expertise Shapes Olfactory Language and Cognition

References

[1] A total of 40 participants (13 identifying as male, 27 identifying as female, and 1 preferring not to identify their gender), aged 19–67 years, were recruited online. All reported themselves as residents of the United Kingdom, English as their primary language, and that they were “regular coffee consumers” (i.e., they regularly buy coffee).

[2] A total of 66 participants (22 identifying as male, 41 as female, 1 as non-binary, and 2 preferring not to identify their gender), aged 18–62 years of age, were invited to participate in the second study. On average, these participants reportedly pay around £7.96 per 500 g bag of coffee regardless of the bag’s description.

[3] See Aradhna Krishna and Norbert Schwarz’s 2014 paper, “Sensory Marketing, Embodiment, and Grounded Cognition: A Review and Introduction,” published in Journal of Consumer Psychology 24, no. 2, here.

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