“It’s a Zen moment, and the cup should reflect that,” said a Starbucks creative director to Fast Company recently.
She was talking about Teavana’s new pristine cup design with disguised sleeve (instead of the old cardboard option) and it sounded like total bullshit.
But in truth, I’m not any more rational when it comes to judging a drink by its cup. Not long ago at a local coffeehouse, I gazed up at a charmingly-chalked menu board and ordered a “London Fog Tea Latte.”
It arrived on the counter in a porcelain cup with saucer. Four lavender seeds were arranged in a fleur-de-lis in the center of the froth. The barista gave me a bestowing nod, and sure enough, it was the best tea latte I’d ever tasted. In fact… I found myself thinking “Mmm” before the cup even reached my lips.
And then I felt shame.
As a marketer and consumer behavior journalist, how could I have been so swayed by aesthetics? Shouldn’t I have known better than to fall (as a guy I dated liked to say) for “form over content”?
I began to wonder: suppose my tea latte had come in a paper cup instead of a porcelain one. Or a weathered diner mug — coffee stains, a grey crack, a few layers of leftover lipstick, a wilted tea bag string stuck to the lipstick. Would it have instead tasted like Bigelow, with a splash of half-and-half?
But this $4.50 tea masterpiece dazzled me. I was under its spell. And clearly I’m not the only one who subconsciously answers the siren call of attractive drink packaging.
And you know, maybe it isn’t a trick. Maybe these really are damn fine quality beverages. Perhaps, too, our expectation affects how we perceive taste, so the belief that we’ll be sipping greatness actually makes a drink taste good.
But what about times when this phenomenon might be leading us astray?
While the consequence of misapplying worship to a tea beverage is small, what if sometimes tasting goodness because something looks good… has us eating pure shit?
Our vulnerability to the halo effect is well-documented. So it stands to reason that there are times we’re tasting nourishment, freshness, quality — where there is none.
Does this mean we should be on guard against plating and colors and garnishes and ambiance? Is it necessary — in order to taste our food for what it really is, and thus stay true to our nutrition goals? And in the face of our innate vulnerability to food artisanry, what can we do?
I’ll be exploring these questions a lot on the blog, so I’d love to hear your opinion.
P.S. Check out a follow-up post about McDonald’s Photoshopped burger ads.