Geography Is a Flavor

Starbuck's and other beverage marketers are using packaging not only to make a sale but to help consumers discover what they like.

And other things beverage packaging can teach your customers.

How would you describe your favorite cup of coffee? Would you say it has crisp acidity? Light body? Subtle nutty flavors?

Don’t know? Well neither does the average coffee-drinking consumer.

But marketers in the category-and those in tea, beer and other sectors-know that consumers are increasingly interested in learning more about beverages and experimenting with flavors and varieties. That’s why more brands are using packaging not only to make the sale but to help consumers discover what they like.

Starbuck’s, for one, worked out a marketing strategy dubbed “Geography is a Flavor” that, beginning in 2005, uses its whole-bean coffee packaging to teach consumers about flavor similarities between coffees from the same growing region.

Those from Colombia and Brazil, for instance, share mild and subtle flavor traits-as do all coffees from the Latin American region. Asian Pacific coffees have earthy, herbal flavors. And those from Africa are best known for exotic floral and citrus flavors-tastes you wouldn’t normally expect with coffee.

“Customers will taste a coffee like Kenya, and it’ll be a big ‘a-ha’ moment when they realize not all coffee can taste the same,” says Ann Marie Kurtz, Starbuck’s manager of coffee and tea education. “They say, ‘I get it. This is really different.’”

The strategy to translate origin into the brand’s messaging most notably takes shape in the brand’s packaging: simple, white one-way valve bags (the brand swapped out its multi-colored packaging in 2005) that include a color-coded band around the lower third to represent each coffee-growing region. Each bag also features a stamp-like illustration that identifies the specific territory.

Packaging for a Guatemalan coffee, for instance, will feature an orange-colored band that identifies it as Latin American (smooth, mild, accessible) and a stamp illustration with specific imagery about Guatemala itself: a woman in traditional dress against the backdrop of a volcano.

By linking packaging back to the flavor profile of various regions, the company hopes to make it easier for consumers to make generalities about what they like and, as a result, to learn to experiment with different varieties.

“You can say it’s highly likely that a customer that likes coffee from Mexico will like a coffee from Colombia,” says Kurtz. “So if you can educate about the basic flavor differences between the three growing regions you’re giving the customer a building block to learn about coffee.”

Admittedly, the wine sector is a big inspiration.

“We’ve experimented with different ways to classify our coffees and to educate our customers on flavor profiles. For a while, classifications like ‘lively impressions’ or ‘bold expressions’ gave customers some idea, but there was no foundation to make links between the coffees,” says Kurz. “With geography it’s so straightforward. As with wine, you can make generalizations about coffee-growing regions.”

The only caveat is to keep it simple. In France, where, historically, wine labels have gone to great lengths to specify the precise stretch of earth where the wine comes from (there are 400+ such geographic designations there), the government is calling for reform and advocating a more streamlined system that simply highlights the grape variety. The hope is that a simplified labeling system will be more accessible to consumers and, a result, will reverse the country’s plummeting wine industry fortunes.

“We want to be clear in how we educate,” says Kurtz, who is aware of the risks of going too deep with the education platform. But she’s also clearly aware of the benefits. “We’re giving customers more of a personal and emotional connection to the coffees by feeling they understand more about where they come from,” she says.

Pauline Tingas Hammerbeck is senior editor of BRANDPACKAGING. Reach her at


Chardonnay is a grape. The idea of grape juice usually conjures an image of heavily flavored, deep purple-colored beverages made from concord grapes. But First Blush, a new premium juice brand, is boldly calling out grape varietals on its bottles to teach consumers that merlot, chardonnay and cabernet are grapes first and foremost-before they ever become wine.

Ingredients matter. Everyone knows hops are used to make beer-but does it matter where they come from? Samuel Adams says yes and is highlighting the “almost reckless” quantities of Hallertau Mittelfrueh hop, a rare Bavarian Noble hop, in its limited-edition pilsner, released in September. The idea is to help consumers understand how different hop varietals add distinct flavors and aromas to beer.

Tea is healing. For thousands of years, tea drinking has been cherished as a source of health and healing. Dr. Andrew Weil for Tea, a new line of ready-to-drink teas, is reaching out with that message in the hope that consumers will incorporate the benefits of tea into their daily lives. Packaging gives hero status to the spice and tea varieties and on-pack copy describes the restorative properties of the teas.

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