The coffee industry is a study in branding. Some people who say they can taste the difference between brands really can, while I’ll wager the vast majority think they can. If so, they are not unlike wine and cola connoisseurs. For the sake of your own safety, do not cite studies showing how few people can pick out their favorite brand in a blind taste test like the one Malcolm Gladwell describes in Blink. There are more pleasant ways to die.
At the risk of inviting you to roll your eyes and say “yeah, right,” I believe that I rank among those who can tell one coffeehouse’s product from another’s by taste alone. There’s one place whose product makes me wince on the first sip—too bitter. Another’s is too watery. And then there’s a modest local chain that gets it just to my liking, every time. But I’m not going to subject myself to a blind test. In a spirit of honest hypocrisy, if I am wrong, I prefer not to know.
There’s a reason that I and many others feel that way, and only part of it is stubbornness. The rest of it is this thing called the brand experience.
The brew matters, but so do the decor and feel of the place, and so do the look and manner of the people behind the counter. Great coffeehouses are hangouts—a “third place,” comfortably positioned in one’s mind between office and home. Stop by at any hour, and you’ll see people comfortably sipping joe as they surf on a laptop, visit with friends, read a novel, just relax, or peruse a newspaper. (Whether it’s a mainstream or alternative paper tells you something about the coffeehouse’s brand as well.) Just how at home you feel in the coffeehouse, and how much you can identify with the other hanger-outers, will have a lot to do with how good the product tastes to you.
Story matters, too. There’s something about knowing that your coffee was grown with loving care in an exotic locale that makes it taste better. (One of my fondest memories is of enjoying a freshly-brewed cup on a Kauai coffee plantation. Ahh.) The effect will be multiplied if you know that your coffeehouse only buys from growers who respect the workers, the locals and the environment.
Another aspect of the story is the process. Chances are you can taste the difference—and if you can’t you will believe you can—if you know that the coffeehouse roasts on-premise and grinds just minutes before you show up to order.
If you want to learn about branding, take a good look at any coffeehouse with a loyal following. The brew matters. But look a little closer, and you’ll see that there’s a lot more to it.