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Coffee Trends: Packaging as theatre

Packaging as theatre

May 25, 2017
By Brian Martell


Old-school coffee roasters have an obsession with their product. This is a good thing: whether it involves the selection of the green, the blending of the beans or coaxing out the finest flavour development in the roasting process – the final proof has always been the taste in the cup.  

Stuart Daw, founder of Heritage Coffee (and many other notable coffee companies) as well as mentor to many in the industry, was perhaps the most eminent sage to fit this description. His skills through the continuum of green to cup are unparalleled with the exception of Kevin Daw, his son, who carries on the tradition of fanatical attention to consistent quality. In the genesis of coffee through both food service and OCS, the focus was always thus, and while cup quality is still the pinnacle goal, it requires and deserves supporting actors on its way to the awards.  

Without intentional hyperbole, coffee is a sensual luxury. It appeals to all our senses on a fundamental level: the sound of coffee grinding, the aroma that fills the air of freshly ground or freshly brewed coffee, the heat of the cup as it warms your hands and your lips, and of course, the wonderful flavour that fills your mouth at the first and last sip.  

But what of sight? In a world that has a proliferation of both cameras and screens, the sense of sight has become our predominant focus.


To the coffee purist, the purpose of packaging is and was a continuation of the primary goal of cup excellence. Its practical function was to preserve the freshness of the product just before it was brewed – full stop. So little attention was paid to the visual senses that coffee, to this day, is often packed in neutral gold or silver webbing, especially when packed for the food-service trade. Many of us remember learning in primary school that there are five senses. The truth is slightly different in that there are many more we all experience. And beyond others, such as a sense of balance or a sense of inertia, is perhaps the most human of them all: a sense of imagination. It is our imagination that is the catalyst for all progress as it allows us to dream beyond what we see of the nominal world limited by the original five. We do this because, as a species, we are drawn to narratives. A good story resonates with the listener not just on an intellectual basis but also on an emotional one. Evangelists, revolutionaries and Dale Carnegie will all tell you that to compel someone to action requires more than an appeal to reason, it demands an emotional connection: the creation of desire.

Steve Jobs famously said, “Packaging can be theatre, it can create a story.” Using the canvas that is our packaging medium gives us an opportunity to connect with our customers on this level. Even if it is a one-act play, we can create theatre that honestly tells a story about the coffee, the company or – perhaps most intimate of all – the people behind the product. Connecting with your customers about what you stand for and believe, telling the story of why the coffee is so good, and explaining how you fit into the larger scheme of the world are all legitimate touchpoints. The science of emotion and of what triggers different responses in our psyche transcends the esthetic. Beautiful packaging is but a part of the equation and to convey the full meaning of the message requires a carefully crafted blend of image, colour and copy.

I have heard it said (and perhaps am guilty of saying) that there is a legitimate reason for proper care to be taken when designing OCS packaging, but not so for food service.  There may be a kernel of truth to this, but consider the following: in any food-service coffee interaction, there is typically an employee who deals with the direct consumer. In this instance the subtle, non-verbal cues given during this interaction flow from provider to customer. Employees are also coffee drinkers and if they have connected positively with the product on more levels than the paying customer can, this will translate favourably when the coffee is served.

The look and feel of your packaging is a calling card to your clients. The message we choose to convey should be carefully constructed to achieve what you would tell them if you were there in person to express it yourself.

Brian Martell works at Heritage Coffee as vice-president of sales and has many years of industry experience. Brian has also been the recipient of three prestigious awards: the Don Storey, Stuart Daw, and the Albert DeNovelus Customer Service awards. Questions, comments, feedback, start a dialogue? Email him at