The distinction between angular and rounded shapes also affects consumers’ attitudes towards the drink, according to a study in the Journal of Sensory Studies.
Perceptions of quality
In Britain, some 70m cups of coffee are drunk in cafes, restaurants and similar outlets every day. In Australia, around 2.7m cups are consumed. “Such figures clearly highlight the strong financial incentive to try and optimize a consumer’s experience of a given cup of coffee,” wrote George Van Doorn, one of the authors, in the study.
Researchers from Australia and the UK carried out a series of four experiments to investigate whether both expectations and perceptions of milk-based coffee drinks would be influenced by latte art and its shape.
“Taken together, the results of [our] surveys and experiments demonstrate the presence or absence of latte art influences people’s willingness to pay for a warm, milk-based coffee beverage,” said Van Doorn.
“If coffee producers want to manipulate people’s expectations of their products, adding a star-like shape to a cappuccino will likely increase expected bitterness, likability and quality; although rounded and angular shapes influence the perception of cost and quality.
“Cafe owners and baristas should carefully consider whether latte art should be added to the product they are serving, and what type of visual design they intend to use - rounded designs may be preferable.
“These results are consistent with a growing body of research demonstrating the visual presentation of food can exert a profound effect on how much people are willing to pay and, on occasion, can even affect the consumer’s enjoyment of the food.”
Expectation and perception
The first experiment showed pictures of two cups of coffee to people over the internet to assess expectations. One had latte art and the other didn’t.
The results of this experiment “clearly demonstrated that people were willing to pay significantly more for a coffee with latte art than for an equivalent drink without art,” explained Van Doorn. This could be because latte art is associated with a higher quality drink (because more time has gone into it) or because they have paid more for this kind of beverage in the past.
A second experiment, conducted in real life with coffee in a café, showed people were willing to pay more for a coffee with latte art than a drink without.
A third experiment looked at the effect of latte art shapes, via an online questionnaire to understand the expectation behind the forms. Drawing on previous research, the researchers expected people would prefer rounded shapes such as circles to angular shapes such as stars and triangles. Circular shapes have been associated with sweetness, while angularity with bitterness.
However, the study showed that participants expected cappuccino to be more bitter, liked more, and of better quality when accompanied by an angular shape.
“Although speculative, it is possible that people judged the coffee with a star on it to be of better quality because the star brings to mind the positive characteristics of a market leading company (eg Costa),” said Van Doorn.
Another explanation is that the star shape covered more surface area with chocolate.
However, a final experiment which provided participants with an actual cup of coffee suggested a cappuccino with a rounded shape was perceived to be of better quality and should cost more. “This may be explained by referring to differences between expectations and perceptions.”
Source: Journal of Sensory Studies, 30 (2015). doi:10.1111/joss.12159
Title: ‘Latte art influences both the expected and rated value of milk-based coffee drinks’
Authors: G. Van Doorn; M. Colonna-Dashwood, R. Hudd-Baillie, C. Spence.