What is the ultimate coffee drinking experience?

Carlos Velasco

Last year, the global specialty coffee market was valued at more than USD 35 billion in revenue and is expected to reach USD 85 billion by 2025. We set out to discover if imagery and new technology can enhance how much we enjoy our morning brew.

Co-authored by Kaya Carreta & Suzie Hoban (Nordic Approach)

Norwegians are world-leading coffee consumers, surpassed only by neighbouring Finland. In a country that imports approximately a whopping 40 000 tons of coffee each year, the average adult Norwegian consumes almost four cups of coffee a day, according to Statistics Norway (SSB).

A steadily increasing amount of those cups are made from specialty coffee, which is characterised by higher quality beans, traceability, and the close relationship different players of the industry maintain with the place of origin of the coffee, also known as its terroir.

This relationship elevates speciality coffee to a superior (or premium) product and differentiates it from your average commodity coffee (the black sludge you might be used to from the office coffee machine).

For this reason, companies use claims, stories, and imagery related to the coffee’s origin to market the differentiated coffees. But do they work in practice? Do we really evaluate our coffee better when we know where it is coming from? And can certain origin-related atmospheres enhance our coffee drinking experience?

Three experiments

Recently, BI’s Centre for Multisensory Marketing developed a collaboration with green coffee sourcing company Nordic Approach to answer these questions. We conducted three experiments to evaluate the effect of terroir images on the specialty coffee experience:

1) How important is product presentation?

In our first experiment, we tested 770 participants to explore whether online product presentations that use location (imagery from a farm versus a city), origin imagery (origin versus not origin), and label (labelled coffee versus unlabelled coffee), could enhance the perception of the «premiumness», or the superiority, of the coffee.

We discovered that in order to enhance this perception of superiority, brands should focus on the context of the imagery they present. Put differently, people evaluate the coffee as more superior when presented with images of a farm in Colombia, for instance, rather than an urban city environment.

2) Where do people enjoy their coffee the most?

In the second experiment, we invited 145 participants to sample a specialty coffee in either of three virtual reality atmospheres: farm, city or a control white room.

Here, we went beyond and evaluated other elements of the specialty coffee experience, including the overall perception and pleasantness of the experience, but also how people perceive different sensory properties of the coffee, such as sweetness and acidity.

We found that sampling the coffee in the farm atmosphere enhanced the perception of «premiumness» relative to the control room, but not the city. People also enjoyed the experience more in the farm environment.

Interestingly, they perceived the coffee as less sweet in the city environment relative to other atmospheres. This can potentially be explained by how high levels of noise may impair perceptions of sweetness, and that city centres are generally loud and sensory overloading places.

3) What do coffee experts think?

In our third and final experiment, we invited 34 coffee industry professionals to sample the specialty coffee. Consistent with the last experiment, participants were presented with either of the three virtual reality atmospheres, before evaluating the coffee and the overall experience.

Perhaps surprisingly, we did not find any differences in the way professionals perceive the overall quality across different atmospheres. However, the experts enjoyed the experience more in the farm atmosphere versus the control environment.

A caffeine kick of the future?

Our study revealed that imagery that portrays the origin of the coffee can enhance the way in which we perceive it, in particular, in terms of its premium character. Moreover, virtual reality atmospheres associated with the coffee’s terroir bring context to the specialty coffee drinking experience, potentially influencing how much we enjoy it.

Additionally, the location where you drink your coffee can also influence how we perceive its different sensory properties, such as its sweetness and acidity.

These findings provide relevant insights for different players across the specialty coffee chain. For instance, sourcing companies and roasters should focus on presenting imagery related to the terroir of the coffee in their promotional material and packaging.

Roasters and cafés could also benefit from designing atmospheres that incorporate origin-based images and stories. On that note, virtual reality presents a great opportunity to develop immersive experiences around coffee.

Finally, these experiences can and should be used to more effectively communicate the value of knowing where your coffee comes from and the people that make it possible.

In the future, we and other researchers will further explore specific elements that are part of a virtual reality atmosphere that alludes to the origin of a coffee. By doing so, we may be able to get closer to develop the virtual premium coffee experience.


Gerard, A., Lopez, M. C., & McCright, A. M. (2019). Coffee roasters’ sustainable sourcing decisions and use of the direct trade label. Sustainability, 11(5437), 1–21.

GLOBE NEWSWIRE (2019, Aug 23). Specialty coffee market to hit $ 83.5 billion by 2025–insights on key trends, value chain analysis, impact indicators, growth drivers, recent initiatives and business opportunities: Adroit market research.

Perez, J., Kilian, B., Pratt, L., Ardila, J. C., Lamb, H., Byers, L., & Sanders, D. (2017). Economic sustainability—Price, cost, and value. In B. Folmer (Ed.), The craft and science of coffee (pp. 133–160). London: Elsevier Academic Press.

Velasco, C., Balboa, D., Marmolejo-Ramos, F., & Spence, C. (2014). Crossmodal effect of music and odor pleasantness on olfactory quality perception. Frontiers in Psychology, 5: 1352.

Published 24. January 2020

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