A look at consumer dissonance from information overload amongst coffee buyers

information overload

Daniel Rosenberg

People are less confident about which coffee they will buy and if it will be good for them, from our research. There is simply too much contradictory information and it creates a dissonance when they consider buying. We decided to audit articles about coffee on the internet to see if this was justified.

If you are conducting any research into consumer journey’s, developing buyer persona’s, or looking to identify evolving category insights, a common theme is consumer wear-out from the deluge of information that is available.  David Shenk called this ‘data smog’, describing how the amount of information is making it difficult to see anything.  

Many participants in recent years describe a mounting sense of anxiety when making purchase decisions, as a result of the increasing amount of information that is available (pushed at them).  Information that is not always consistent or aligned.

buyer dissonance

Looking at their frequent decision-making behaviour, many appear to be adopting a satisficing (satisfy + suffice) strategy.  Where we make decisions and choices where it is not possible to meaningfully compare the pros-and-cons of all options.  So, you make a decision that you believe is good enough but understand this might  not be optimal.   The paradox is that less information and options are perceived as more satisfying, yet too much information or choice is stressful.

There does appear to be a significant opportunity for brand and categories to think about their information architecture and how to reduce the dissonance that buyers feel about their decisions.

A case study from participants: coffee information from the internet

We asked participants which products have the most contradictory information to understand.  The three most consistent responses were coffee, chocolate, and wine.  To get a deeper insight into the impact that information from the internet is having on buyer-confidence, we decided to audit the communications of one of these.

Focus on coffee

We decided to focus on coffee since it involves daily consumption for many of these participants.  In one of the components of a category audit, we monitored web articles that were posted over the last four months on coffee, and asked participants for sites they visited, and monitored RSS feeds for coffee, in general.   We ended up with 207 articles that were uniformly spread across that time.  As a rule of thumb, the article had to either speak from personal experience, be interviewing someone of recognised authority or reference a scientific study.  We also recognise that this means these articles were, to some extent, influenced by which scientific articles were published during this observation window. Articles that were direct marketing posts by coffee-related companies were omitted.

All of the cited articles are hyperlinked below for reference.

Main themes present in this coffee audit

Main themes about coffee

Since the focus of this exercise was what was driving category-dissonance, we have focused on the category discourse on the benefits and cautions of drinking coffee.

Collection 1: Coffee is good for you.

A summary of the key benefits of drinking coffee illustrates that there are many different aspects of wellbeing that coffee appears to be beneficial for.  The more frequent topics here relate to:

  1. Brain Health + Performance (memory)

  2. Weight Loss & Fitness

  3. Heart Health

  4. Liver Health

  5. Healthy digestion

The benefits of drinking coffee

Brain Health

There were three main themes address by these articles. 

The first was about coffee’s ability to keep away Alzheimer’s: three cups a day may keep dementia and strokes away; a coffee or two can help lower the risk of Alzheimer’s; for those in midlife and older, coffee is important against Alzheimer’s;  and more specifically, dark roasted coffee reduces Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s risk.

The second series of articles were more proactive about general brain health: reduce your risk of cognitive decline; how much to drink to support brain health; coffee may make your brain healthier; slow your brain’s aging; coffee can improve your mood and fight ‘Seasonal Affective Disorder’.

The third series of articles focused on memory and performance, the benefits of a healthy brain:  coffee can help your memory; coffee is the number one drink for memory loss; coffee can boost productivity; can help you focus if drunk at the right time; to improving your mind’s reaction to moving targets.

Weight and Fitness

The next largest group of articles related to either weight loss or fitness.  Those that focused on weight loss, approached this from different angles: the healthiest coffee to order while working to lose weight; a coffee cleanse for weight loss; a morning coffee can help shed kilos; to more specific claims that caffeine triggers brown fat thermogenesis.

There were others that made various claims about fitness and performance:  that it boosts your exercise performance; reduce muscle loss and inflammation; coffee can help you maintain strong muscles and mobility as you age; and coffee doesn’t cause dehydration.

Liver Health

Coffee was seen as having a very positive impact on chronic liver disease: decreases the risk of chronic liver disease; protects your liver from chronic disease; coffee has important health benefits for your liver; the best drinking habit for your liver; to more specific claims of reducing your liver cancer risk by 43%; and coffee was linked to lower liver fat fibrosis and liver fat accumulation.

Heart Health

Having researched coffee and energy-drinks in the past, the physiological concerns about the impact on heart health is a pre-existing concern.  The articles in this seek to address these: coffee is a healthy morning drink for your heart; coffee is good for your heart in moderation; might be good for your heart.

Addressing the main concerns about drinking too many coffees: may prevent an irregular heart beat; the link between coffee drinking and reduced incident tachyarrhythmias; and more specifically reduce risk of heart disease for people with Type 2 Diabetes.

Healthy Digestion

The next largest group of articles were focused on the impact of coffee on digestion, which is also a frequent topic in any coffee focus group.  These articles largely focus on the positive framing: a morning cup can help with digestion; say goodbye to digestion problems; coffee stimulates your digestion; coffee helps you to keep a healthy gut; or and more directly, coffee can help you go to the toilet.

There are some more specific well-being claims about coffee:

Collection 2: Coffee is bad for you. Why should be be cautious about coffee? Summary

Why coffee is bad for you

There were half the number of positive articles as to why we should be cautious about coffee.

None of these were significantly more frequent than the others.

  1. Inflammation, only decaf coffee is anti-inflammatory.

  2. There are unhealthy ways of drinking coffee: coffee with cream; or this processed coffee drink that is bad for weight loss.

  3. Coffee can cause acne: three reasons coffee might cause acne; caffeine from coffee causes acne.

  4. Coffee can be unhealthy for the heart: brewing coffee this way increases heart disease and stroke.
  5. Does coffee raise your blood pressure?

  6. There is a link between coffee and kidney disease: If you drink coffee regularly, get your kidneys checked; more than four cups a day can leads to kidney disease.

  7. Bladder health: coffee irritates the bladder for some; why does coffee make you pee so much?

  8. Sleep interruption: drinking coffee results in less sleep; coffee doesn’t compensate for a lack of sleep.

  9. Vitamin deficiency: the more coffee you drink, the more likely you are to be Vitamin D deficient; can result in a serious vitamin deficiency.

  10. Impact on brain health: drinking coffee could skyrocket the risk of dementia; smaller brain volume and increased dementia risk.

  11. Eye health: drinking a beverage like coffee could triple your risk of glaucoma and elevated eye pressure.

  12. Does caffeine affect people with ADHD differently?

Collection 3: How to drink coffee healthily

The third group of articles sought to mediate between perceptions of unhealthiness and a lack-of-knowledge.  The largest group looked at caffeine and tried to be informative as to its function and impact on the body.

Caffeine information

The largest group focused on questions about caffeine, in general: caffeine and the human body; what does caffeine do to the body; how much caffeine is in your coffee cup?; through to addressing four myths about caffeine.

With article titles speaking to uncertainty: Who to trust on coffee?; is drinking coffee good for you?; coffee’s health benefits aren’t straight forward; or simply, is coffee as healthy as tea?

Maybe the reason you like coffee is out of your control: a fan of black coffee and dark chocolate? It’s in your genes; the reason that you like your coffee black.

How much to drink and when?

Some sought to establish what healthy consumption of coffee was: the best amount to drink every day; how much coffee to drink in 2022; the exact amount to drink, but not French Press or Espresso; to addressing what the ceiling on consumption is, what is death wish coffee?

When is the best time of the day to drink coffee?; to should you drink coffee before a workout?; are you drinking your coffee in a healthy way?

When you drink too much coffee, this happens to your body; how do you know if you are addicted?; What happens when you give up coffee?

Were there significant areas of contradictory information?

A simple comparison highlights several conflicting health claims that would lead to consumer dissonance:

  1. Brain health – many claim it reduces the risks of Alzheimer’s, whilst others say coffee drinking has a risk of prompting dementia and smaller-brain volume.

There were other non-health information areas that contributed conflicting information

We should also consider that there are probably and equivalent number of articles on wine and chocolate that are framed in positive and negative terms.  In this genre of ‘wellbeing vices’, there is some use of coffee as a counterpoint to the negatives associated with alcohol: liver and health problems.  Which suggests that uncertainty in information might be layered with other products and services.

Another consideration is that this drip-feed of negativity and positivity (over four months) creates its own natural skepticism across many different food and drink categories.  Furthermore, it also challenges the credibility of any one claim, when you see so many.   Finally, when you see the cumulative benefits that you drink everyday without necessarily experiencing all these benefits (or are we?).

While there is not space here to review in detail, there are other areas across these articles that would contribute to uncertainty amongst consumers:

  1. Challenges to what is the best way to make coffee

  2. Best ways to store coffee and clean equipment

  3. What is the best equipment to make coffee with?

  4. What country has the best coffee?

  5. How sustainable and ethical is coffee (with a big focus on rising costs and climate change impacts).

  6. That at-home-coffee is not great for the environment, from pods and recycling.

  7. If you are caffeine cautious, what are the alternatives?

  8. Why are people putting additives into coffee like mushrooms?

  9. Are coffee cocktail trends good for me?

  10. What happens when you quit?

Closing considerations

Even a brief audit of the information that is being published online shows there is a lot of information as well as significant contradictions. The fact that many of these articles cite experts from health fields or academic journals makes reconciling these contradictory findings difficult for those passively receiving this information.

When we speak to people about their decision making, there are obviously low-and-high involvement categories.  This can be because of price to personal preference.   However, cumulatively information-overload and a skepticism of all marketing messages is contributing to confusion and frustration amongst consumers.

Does your brand have a clear information strategy in how, where, in what way and to which consumers? 

Any inquiries please connect with us here

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