Smell the coffee

My friend Davi and I were discussing the power of branding. Davi pointed out that the real genius of Starbucks is that they burn their coffee. If you do that, then it doesn’t matter exactly what coffee beans you use – it all pretty much tastes the same. In this way, Starbucks is able to achieve quality control at affordable prices. Customers expect the coffee to be burnt. In fact, thanks to the power of advertising, they actually come to believe that this is how coffee is supposed to taste. Meanwhile, Starbucks can use relatively inexpensive beans, and still produce a reliably reproducible taste.

Imagine the plight of a coffee shop that tried to compete with this formula through proper brewing of very high quality coffee beans. Not only would their raw material costs be higher, but their customers would actually be able to taste any deviations from quality – whether due to beans that were a little off, or due to some misstep in the brewing process. Starbucks doesn’t have this problem. Not only do their beans cost less, but as long as their beans are adequate, and the result has that burnt taste, customers will be satisfied – getting exactly the taste they’ve been conditioned to accept.

I pointed out that something similar is going on with the Apple iPhone. As an input device, its capacitive touch screen is really inaccurate. Because of the inherent noisiness of the signal, Apple “blurs” the data to smooth it out, which results in a mushy and inexact quality of touch.

Ingeniously, Apple has designed their entire interface around the limited capabilities of their touch screen. Objects that you touch on your screen glide and float and do cute little animations. All of this hides the fact that the computer isn’t really registering exactly where and when you touched. But Apple has trained its customers to expect this fuzzy kind of input, and so the users are happy, remaining blissfully unaware of the greater power they would have if only they had access to a truly responsive input device.

I guess this kind of thing goes on all the time. Some new player in a field, by virtue of excellent marketing skills, retrains an audience to crave mediocrity rather than excellence. One of my favorite examples of this phenomenon is the way many people actually now prefer the boring metronomic sound of a drum machine, rather than the far more organic and expressive quality of a live drummer.

I have no idea whether this is a permanent trend – an inevitable consequence of the power of branding in our modern age. Maybe we are seeing a glimpse into a world ruled by a brand-friendly mediocracy. Or maybe it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee.

5 Responses to “Smell the coffee”

  1. Dan Nielsen says:

    Yes! There’s a small local coffee shop around here that often has that burnt taste. Sometimes I forget and gently joke about how the shop is a good thing; I’m certainly not going out of the way for the coffee – words that usually (but not always) seem to be anathema to baristas and loyalists of their far-roasted fair-trade. Maybe they just don’t taste it, or think its a bonus the flavor resembles smoke.

  2. davidmaas says:

    Those who’ve never tasted real strawberries as kids actually prefer the chemical approximation to the real thing…
    I’m not sure they crave “mediocrity” or if they have a different perception of “quality”.

  3. Dagmar says:

    It is not quality that sells but marketing.
    Actually you have to learn to taste and if things are a little complex it takes time. And I guess most people just don’t want to invest this time. They end up buying branded gadgets instead of tools, coffee pads instead of coffee.
    Drinking coffee from Starbucks is definitely not about coffee, but about Starbucks.
    It is like drinking champagne from one of those big brands, it is just about drinking champagne, not about drinking a perfect sparkling wine…
    What makes me sad is the small world some people living in, just because they are too lazy to learn to taste.

  4. LastSilmaril says:

    It’s not all marketing is it?

    My 2002-vintage Sony Clie – banged-up but still in use as an ebook reader and (I shit you not) universal remote – has pretty piss-poor responsiveness. The ‘almost invisible dots’ are spaced a centimeter apart or something like that, to mine eyes.
    So I would give the hardware guys and software guys at Apple and in the smartphone industry in general a bit more props: it ain’t all marketing, progress has been made, no? Or is it really all software-based ‘simple tricks and nonsense’? It couldn’t have been easy putting together that API, either, 6-word-long method names and all…

  5. admin says:

    Yes, I totally give them props for their software API, and progress has certainly been made in hardware since 2002. Nonetheless, you would never confuse the low fidelity data gathered by an iPhone sensor with the kind of high quality data gathered by, say, a Wacom tablet. I am actually quite impressed with Apple’s brilliant use of misdirection to create an enjoyable and effective user experience on top of a low quality input device.

    I am equally impressed with the way Nintendo has built delightful computer games on top of the very low fidelity inertial sensor contained in the first-generation WiiMote. I wasn’t being ironic when I said that Apple was being ingenious. Given their fundamental (and limiting) decision to go with a capacitance sensor, they’ve done a very nice job of navigating the inherent cost/performance tradeoffs of their hardware, through good software design.

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