Hot Chocolate Tastes Better in an Orange Mug

That is not a random provocative statement (though I am guilty of those on occasion) it is a scientifically proven fact.  Charles Spence, of the University of Oxford and Betina Piqueras-Fiszman from the Polytechnic University of Valencia have statistically validated it.

They served a group of people the same hot chocolate in white mugs, cream mugs, red mugs and orange mugs and asked them how it tasted.  In some mugs it tasted too sweet and in some too bitter, however, hot chocolate from orange mugs is, as Goldilocks would say, “just right”.

Fascinating but… why should you care?

If you are trying to beat Starbucks at their own game this is important news, you can make your hot chocolate taste better than their’s simply by changing the colour of your mugs.  No secret recipe required.

But if you don’t brew hot drinks for a living the story still provokes a couple of questions worth answering:

1.  Do you know everything there is to know?

Do you know all that is known about your business?  Can you really explain call routing or queuing theory or shelf placement or ski waxing?  Or do the scientists (and your competitors) know things that you are blissfully unaware of.

2.  Are you testing new approaches?

Have you tried changing the layout of your reception area, or the way you schedule your repairmen.  Are you measuring the results; looking to see what works and what doesn’t, learning how to optimise the service you give your customers?

3.  Are you acting on what you find out?

If the data shows you that one way is better, and your customers also tell you that that one way is better, are you moving to that better way?  Are you actively moving your business forward?

Now for the killer question…

Here is my last question for you.  When will Starbucks start to serve their hot chocolate in scientifically superior orange mugs?  Will they change?  Or will they have a long debate about the brand values of their white and green mugs, and the taste of their specially sourced coco powder, and the investment cost of all that new crockery?

This year? Next year?  Sometime? Never?

I know where my money is.

What would your organisation do?

A little knowledge that acts is worth infinitely more than much knowledge that is idle ~ Khalil Gibran

Starbucks Hot Chocolate

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Image by Chris_J


  1. James

    I have my favourite mug for tea, and a different one for coffee. This is a delightful explanation, and vindication that my wife is wrong to ridicule my preferences because I now know there is a scientific basis.

    But your article has me puzzled and I’m not sure why. I wonder whether taste is everything – the ultimate goal, or is it not a complex cocktail of factors that make up a customer’s overall experience?

    Starbucks generated an outcry when they made just a subtle change to their logo so I don’t see them using orange mugs any time soon. I might criticise them for many things but, in the circumstances, not for that.

    Maybe your second point could be stronger – test and challenge by all means, but listen very carefully, don’t assume one factor can be changed without affecting another, and make sure your customers will welcome your change before you impose it on them?

    • James Lawther says:

      Thanks for your comment Guy.

      I agree you should listen to your customers

      “and your customers also tell you that that one way is better”

      But the number of times organisations do what they think is right and customers complain is vanishingly small.

      The issue I have is when organisations don’t act on what science and their customers tell them. Or worse still, don’t think to look.

      As a man in the complaints business I suspect you can think of a couple of times that has happened.


      • “The issue I have is when organisations don’t act on what science and their customers tell them. Or worse still, don’t think to look.”

        Agreed. If your customers are giving up a few moments of their time to fill out a survey or answer a question and your company does nothing with that information than what was the point? Having information is one thing but you actually have to act on it. Change can be scary but sometimes it’s for the best!

  2. Hello James

    I thank you for bringing this to my attention. And what shows up for me is the New Coke debacle. If my grasp of the situation is correct the folks behind New Coke did everything right scientifically. The tested and they tested, and cola drinkers preferred that taste of New Coke. And then there was a huge outcry when Coke shelved Coke and only offered New Coke.

    So here is what occurs to me and with which I am in agreement with you. The source of incremental improvement lies in the domain of ‘what you know that you know’ and ‘what you know that you don’t know’. The source of breakthroughs, of transformation, lies in ‘what you don’t know that you don’t know’. Therefore, one has to deliberate go about the world such that one gets access to ‘what you don’t know that you don’t know’. And other people, other companies, other organisations, other cultures, other literature can all provide an access to that.

    The pragmatist in me says that when you have access to ‘what you don’t know that you don’t know’ then put that knowledge into life by experimenting – ideally small experiments in the real world. So in the case of New Coke I would have recommended that they replace Coke with New Coke in selected stores.

    No to take account of your point, Guy’s point and my stand for the primacy of the customer. If I was running Starbucks, I would offer customers a choice of colours – Green (for the traditionalists) and Orange (for the avant grade). And conducting this experiment, I would see what showed up. if I wanted to be more pushy I would seed the right people drinking their hot chocolate in Orange mugs thus providing social proof and encouraging trial and take up of Orange mugs.


    • James Lawther says:

      When you set up the coffee shop let me know Maz, it will be interesting to see if I choose green or orange.

      Thanks for the comment


  3. Hi James,
    This is fascinating.

    Here’s another ‘factoid’ for you…did you know that over a third of our brain and brain capacity is occupied with processing visual material.

    Now, here’s what intrigues me……I believe visual presentation and conditions are important. As, are other conditions that affect our senses. However, I’m not sure that we fully understand the connectedness of all these things within our brains. And, will it be the same for different people in different situations from different cultural backgrounds?

    However, if I had a coffee shop I’d do like Maz suggests and run an experiment to see if it worked in my ‘conditions’.


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