Quality of coffee: for some companies it is a taboo

by Carlo Odello

Have you ever tried to drop a line to the customer service of the big multinational coffee companies? We have and we have posed them the sort of question that any careful consumer asks himself: how do you check the quality of your product? We found the address of the customer service or, if they did not have one, the name of the most appropriate person on their corporate websites. We wrote to the companies using a private email address and signed the request. We asked them all the same question: which method do you use for measuring the quality of your product?

This is an unnecessary question when it is down to quality in other sectors. It is already a few years since the car manufacturing industry, just to give an example, has started publishing the results of its safety tests and devotes special focus to them when promoting its product. Coffee is a different story: some companies show the plantations in their ads on television and some others take you in paradise. The overall impression is that not all of them are ready to openly deal with the issue of quality. This is, as we shall see, confirmed by our brief, albeit, accurate analysis.

We had three different categories of replies. Four companies – Nespresso, Illy, Diedrich and MacDonald’s – explained to us in sufficient detail how they measure the quality of the finished product. Vague replies category: Starbucks suggested we should visit their corporate website (which was not that useful), Nestlé replied they would have come back to us. Lavazza told us that quality tests take place everyday and that these tests are certified. The other four companies – Tchibo, Sara Lee, Dotour and Segafredo – have not even replied. We have not been able to contact Costa Coffee because there was no useful contact indication for the common consumer on their website.

Here goes what McDonald’s, Diedrich, Illy and Nespresso said. The Italy customer service for McDonald’s ensured that they use “only products and ingredients that match the highest quality standards and that have been officially approved by competent authorities”. They informed us that “the choice is made on organoleptic evaluations – defined by a panel of tasters – representing the average consumer – who has positively rated the current supplier”. Diedrich gave a more detailed reply saying that the coffee samples are tested before purchase and delivery and that they are also subject to a visual evaluation aimed at spotting any defects of the green coffee. Each roasting process is cupped before it goes to packaging. Also Illy provides great details, informing us that they select the coffee batches and then they make an electronic control on the colour of the beans so that they can discard the flawed ones. They also add that, during the production process, 114 checks are made. From Nespresso, we received a reply by their technical & quality manager Alexandre Bolay (perhaps they smelled the rat?). He said that all throughout the production line there are quality inspections and tasting sessions. The daily production is benchmarked against a reference production: blind testing is done and if the correspondence between the sample and the reference product is lower than 60%, corrective measures are applied to the recipe.

These were their replies. Said this, our test was mainly on the external relations of these companies. The interesting thing to note is that from at least two thirds of the companies we had no useful reply. Actually, Tchibo, Sara Lee, Dotour and Segafredo have not replied at all. We thought this was a bit odd given that quality is the battle field of a wealth of marketing and communication initiatives. In particular, Starbucks vague reply comes as a surprise: they said that, due to the volume of queries they receive, they cannot give interviews or reply to requests for data or provide information on the company other than what is already in the public domain. This comes in a moment when Howard Schultz, Starbucks CEO, is fighting against what he defines as a weakening of the Starbucks experience.

In general, talking about the absent companies, and they did this deliberately, we get the impression that their marketing is still based on the assumption that the consumer is passive. They do marketing strongly focusing on promotion rather than information. The point is that now the consumer, when choosing the product, relies on means like other people’s opinion and the Internet which are not that sensitive to the sort of imposition-based marketing style.

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2 Responses to “Quality of coffee: for some companies it is a taboo”

  1. Belgik Says:

    Dear Carlo,
    From the above article, it is apparent that the large coffee companies cater to the “average”, the “modal” coffee consumer. Italy is probably, together with just a few (but growing number of) countries, exceptional in that the country has many “educated” coffee consumers. Looking at my own country (Belgium), and my close circle of friends (some of whom consider themselves erudite wine amateurs), I do not perceive the slightest real interest in matters of coffee. In fact, the grand hit of the market, these last two years is …Senseo… The shops are full of pads, and if an “expresso” machine does ot accept pads, it is usually not looked at, except by a few.
    It is very common indeed for large wine houses, some of them in fact the very same companies as own large vineyards (and inclusive of small and very elite properties), to make a lot of how traditional, modern, distinctive, fine, grand, exclusive, dependable…succulent…in one word, “good”, their wine products are. Big time marketing. Only in the case of Nespresso (with George Clooney) have I seen such lush marketing let loose on the screens and glossy magazine pages. My guess is that we are -almost?- at the verge of “coffee” reaching the star-status of wine (and some other alcohol-related products).
    Needless to say, the marketing wizards, being here and here to stay, will capitalize on that great resource: good coffee. There is still a lot of distance to cover, but we will soon reach the day when coffee quality control will be an exploitable source, rather than something to be hidden away behind thin veils of incompetence.

  2. tanya Says:

    i’m a little disappointed by starbucks’ response – they should have just sent you to your local starbucks store! every barista is taught during their training about the many cuppings done at each stage from purchasing to roasting to blending and in between. the store manager and any store coffee masters learn to an even greater extend, all the measures in place to monitor quality. just recently starbucks decided not to release a brazilian coffee that was not up to standards. all promotional material was already in place, but the coffee just wasnt up to standards…