Monthly Archives: July 2013

It’s a Lot Like..

I mine the resources of analogy and metaphor rather intensively when talking about coffee. I do it when presenting and discussing coffee to a wide variety of customers and even more so when training people.

I wanted to muse a little about the worth of analogy in communication and also about its inherent shortcomings. I want to focus particularly on what is great about the wine analogy for speciality coffee. Quite often in the realms of twitterland and speciality coffee discussions this particular analogy has a tough time, so much so that it is often labelled awful and useless.

A little definition before we continue:
“Analogy is a cognitive process of transferring information or meaning from a particular subject (the analogue or source) to another particular subject (the target).”

In essence analogies are a tool for teaching and learning, an analogy can powerfully help with the consideration of new (previously unknown) ideas and processes.

By definition an analogy is different to the very thing you are using it to describe/discuss. An analogy does, of course, have to be relevant in a useful way, otherwise you could just use anything as an analogy. So an analogy becomes an analogy not just through being different but also through simultaneously transferring meaning. The worth of each analogy is open to debate, but the fact that the analogy is not a direct replication of the thing you are using it to describe is not a good argument against it. If it was, then analogies should be scrapped altogether.

So why are analogies called upon so often in speciality coffee? Well it’s the same old stuff of trying to look at something in a different way than it is commonly regarded. The use of analogy emphasises the fact that speciality coffee requires an unfamiliar means of viewing an otherwise very familiar drink.

At the heart of speciality coffee is a culinary endeavour, the focus is on the flavour in the cup and then considering all of the incredible variables that fed into the equation to make that drink a reality. The focus of speciality coffee delves much deeper into the area of provenance and terroir than traditional or commercial coffee. The wine analogy is seeming pretty good to me at the moment.

Once the wine analogy has been used to emphasise a provenance and flavour driven approach, it then becomes less useful. Coffee’s journey to the cup – all of the processes and factors involved – diverges wildly from the world of wine. With wine the majority of the drink’s creation occurs at source.

At this point we need to let other analogies take over. It is now useful to use the chain metaphor. Looking at coffee’s creation as a chain of people, natural factors, and equipment being responsible for a cup of coffee’s quality and identity. If something before your part of the chain goes wrong or is just different then what you can do with the coffee is also different, but your part of the chain remains a variable, one with a huge bearing on the coffee. Every step, right up until the drink is being consumed, has had an impact. Every link in the chain matters, and it’s important to recognise the impact of each link.

A coffee is more fleeting and seasonal than a wine. Analogies with fruit and food are useful at this point, providing an easy way to explain coffee’s perishability, and when we get to explaining brewing, the analogy of baking starts to creep in. This accords an explanation of the importance of weighing ingredients to be quickly understood. A wonderful coffee, carefully grown and roasted, is an ingredient with immense potential, but it needs to be crafted. Its preparation needs to be considered and exacting. Besides this, the baking analogy misses a lot out. That’s okay, because here we have used each of these analogies very specifically and with context. The full potential of any of these analogies is heavily reliant on context.

However, even without careful framing it’s not a complete disaster. To be concerned that an analogy will be taken too literally by a customer would be to heavily undermine their intelligence. It’s not as if someone is going to say, “really, it’s like wine, so whats the abv?”

On a more serious note, speciality coffee’s intricacies may not be common knowledge but the fact it’s not bottled like a wine is well-known, (bottled coffee & freshly brewed wine) as is the fact it’s an ingredient that’s prepared rather than just decanted. The very fact that the wine analogy is being used in regards to coffee is informative. Previously held commodity coffee knowledge provides the context. This is then being cross-referenced with a wine analogy to get the mind wandering.

Going a step further, even if a metaphor is completely misinterpreted, this doesn’t need to be a problem. It’s merely part of the discourse. The discussion involving the analogy is more important than the analogy itself. For example, I was visiting a shop that was about to open and those involved were telling me a story about how they were going to be extremely accessible. They weren’t going to have flavour notes or anything else that could be off-putting. They followed this point with an example of how they felt they had failed when using flavour notes, which are of course, metaphors. The goal of the story was, I believe, to suggest how metaphors and analogies complicate things and that presenting coffee in a more familiar way would be better.

The story chronicled a pop up coffee venture that featured flavour notes for filter coffees. They had a particular coffee from Ethiopia, which was accompanied by a flavour note of (amongst other things) blueberry. A customer walked in and queried whether the aforementioned coffee was in fact a yoghurt. The pop up operators deemed this to be a failure and used it to justify the abandonment of flavour notes.

On the contrary, I believe this kind of reaction (which is rare anyway) is a golden opportunity to engage someone in speciality coffee; to say, ‘no actually it’s not a yoghurt, but a unique and exciting Ethiopian filter coffee, the flavour notes there are a lot like flavour notes for wine. Coffee can be capable of amazing and varied flavour potential if various things are focused upon. It’s quite different to traditional or commercial coffee, would you like to try it?’

The fact that analogies can break expectation to the point of being a tad confusing at first demonstrates that they are full of potential. Explaining the relevance or reason for using the metaphor then becomes as useful as the metaphor itself.

By not indulging in analogy there is always a danger of not relating to the uninitiated and of making it harder for people to join the speciality fold.

The very fact that the discussion about speciality coffee often races through several analogies in quick succession says a lot about the special and complex product that it is. The struggle to explain its specifics accurately without the employment of analogies says a lot about coffee’s uniqueness, which in turn signals how rewarding not only the journey but also the conversation can be.

A good question to ask is ‘who are analogies useful for?’ Analogies are primarily a learning tool. As the definition mentions, the goal is to transfer meaning or information from a source to a target. In reality, if you are very familiar with the intricacies of the speciality coffee world, then an analogy may not be useful for developing your understanding. The analogies may not actually be for you. You are already at the target and do not need to make the journey from source to target.

Analogies are instead a powerful language tool that can offer education on, and entry into your world, utilising familiar understanding to bridge the gap over to the unfamiliar.

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How is it so Popular?

Expectation and goals have been a running theme in this blog and it’s a cornerstone of how we think about our coffee business, and about speciality coffee in relation to the wider market.

Michael Beverland is a Professor of Marketing who heads up the Bath University Marketing department; he also props up the bar at our shop and drinks a lot of coffee. Recently he shared the experiences he had whilst engaging a group of his current MSC students in a task.

The task was to think of a brand, a well known one, but one which personally you have no interest in, and don’t get what all the fuss is about.  Then go away, immerse yourself in the world of that brand, empathise with those who do love it, try to understand their motivations and come back to explain why the brand is so popular and successful.

It can be surprisingly difficult to empathise with and appreciate the motivation of others for something that you yourself do not have a natural appreciation for. Only 10-percent (of the students) came back with a full understanding of the appeal of a brand that they previously had not understood or had any insight to. On the whole, students made up a motive, often one that went along the lines of thinking that the consumers of the brand were silly or wrong (which would easily justify why they personally didn’t like it to start with). Others read the website or the branding itself and reproduced that as the reasoning.

Now, obviously this task is specific to the chosen brand, but it’s a great example of how different perspectives and motives can be identified but rarely are those perspectives accurately understood.

I am really interested in the idea of the student that would pick our brand as one to study because they don’t see the appeal. Understanding their viewpoint has been very important to us from the beginning, it is not an understanding that would change what we do in order to align with those who don’t get us. Instead it allows you to understand the landscape which you take part in, constantly assessing how you come across can help check that you are not missing a branding trick and that your communication is working for your brand.

Hearing how hard it was for these students to really swap places was quite surprising, especially considering it’s their chosen field. In fact, for some of the students, Mike asked them to really consider whether a career in marketing was for them.

A customer being presented with speciality coffee at a till hasn’t been tasked with a university assignment, and the difficulty for them to understand the worth of a particular approach – of which they either were not aware or which is challenging to their brand allegiance to another coffee approach – is quite something to ask. Now of course, presenting speciality coffee as something new and innovative, a new brand if you like, means there is less perspective that needs evaluating, but it’s rarely a blank slate.

It’s not only the perspective of the customer that is useful to consider, but also our own, that of barista, speciality coffee people, and all other coffee brands and concepts. I think the easy labelling of speciality coffee as snobbish or elitist is partly to do with a possible inability to wear the shoes of those viewpoints and brands that aren’t the same as our own. This also applies within the speciality coffee field (wherever that line is drawn) in terms of understanding each other.

From a coffee shop point of view I wonder how often the speciality or independent mind set puts itself in the shoes of the consumer who values a chain brand. (here I mean in terms of offering, rather than the desire to support independent or local)

I’m rather fond of what Peter, who works for me, often says when the chain vs specialist/ independent (this is a grey area, as explored in ‘What’s in a name’ post) topic raises its head.  It usually goes along the lines of: “Do you think that everyone in those shops (chains) are wishing they were somewhere else, that they don’t want the products they’ve paid for and are enjoying with friends or with a book? Do you think that they were just wishing there was somewhere nearby that was specialist and served what was almost a completely different product, that was culinary rather than the comforting cup of joe they’ve chosen to drink in a familiar, relatively neutral meeting place?”

Maybe there are people thinking this very thing but it is ridiculous to think that it applies across the board. It would also be short sighted to assume that those who aren’t thinking the above have just not witnessed speciality coffee. All of this would show an inability to understand the appeal of the other brand.

Peter’s standpoint is an example of empathising with the appeal of other brand even though it is not one he himself aligns with. This conversation with Peter often goes on much further as the reasons for those brands success are ten-fold, and yes there are often other factors that do feed in to these brands success, convenience and location etc. but it’s not as simple as that, there are many other reasons; structure, reliability, familiarity, sense of identity. It’s the kind of assessment of a brands appeal that one of the marketing students may wish to look into, and the answer “it is just crap and I don’t know why anyone would go” would get you ejected from Mike’s class.

I think that often the expectation in coffee is for one brand to do the work of three or four brands. When the reality is a broader landscape that will have brands with very different appeal, different consumers and meanings. Coffee as an entity cannot have one brand as it means too many different things to too many people, not to mention there being a broad variety of the actual product itself, a multitude of brands reflects this.

In trying to define and communicate what it is we feel speciality coffee is about and what it is we want to offer, we invariably struggle with the fact that we can all be trying to each define a singular “speciality coffee brand”, when like the rest of the market there are a multitude of brands within speciality coffee.  It’s just about brand clarity and the consumer deciding whether its one they are drawn to.

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