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Selling Coffee in Plain English

November 6, 2012

What the Los Angeles Times dubbed "coffee confusion" is being deconstructed by British department store chain Debenhams. Following a survey, which apparently showed that 70 percent of its coffee-drinking customers "couldn't figure out a latte from a mocha or a venti from a grande," the store has rewritten its menu in plain English.

Now, in Debenhams at least, cappuccino is "frothy coffee," caffe mocha is "chocolate flavored coffee" and a caffe latte is "really, really milky coffee." Basic black coffee is "simple coffee" while an espresso shot is "a shot of strong coffee." And as many know, or have had to learn, tall equals small, grande equals large and venti equals extra large. For Debenhams' customers, size choices but will be simplified to cups or mugs.

Although the 100,000 coffee drinks Debenhams sells each week represents a fraction of the 70 million cups per day consumed in Britain, the store is at least taking heed of its own customer base. The historic popularity of coffee houses in England, dating back to the seventeenth century, was not based on extravagant nomenclature as practiced in the twenty-first century, especially by chains originating in the U.S. That said, American media were far more taken with this story than British. The only national newspaper to cover it was the down market, albeit widely read, Daily Mail.

Two quotes in The Mail summed it all up. Debenhams' director of food services, John Baker, explained that the menu is being trialed in its flagship store in Oxford Street "so shoppers spend less time playing coffee Cluedo and more time enjoying their favorite drink."

Chrissie Maher, founder director of the Plain English Campaign, welcomed the new menu by praising anything that is plain English and enables customers to "make an informed choice. If they can read the menu clearly, they are more likely to try something new — and who knows — they may come back for more."


Discussion Questions:

Would converting to plain-speak actually help coffee sales in the U.S. or would something important be lost in the process? Do you see other categories or businesses that would benefit from some plain English?

While we value unfettered opinion, we urge you to show respect and courtesy for people or companies about whom you comment. Keep in mind that this is a public, professional business discussion. RetailWire reserves the right to edit or refuse the publication of remarks that we deem unsuitable. We may also correct for unintended spelling and grammatical errors.

Instant Poll:

Would using plain English descriptions help or hurt coffee sales in the U.S.?


It's an interesting question as we've all heard people will buy more "prawns" vs. "shrimp." My 10-year old twins will eat "porridge" but not "oatmeal" (sigh). As marketers I do think sometimes we get "too cute" and lose the message. In the case of Debenhams, they researched it -- makes me wonder if they were getting clues from customers that there was a menu misunderstanding issue and decided to spend money to find out for sure -- good for them, nice when research illuminates something and provides a basis for action.

Sandra Gudat, CEO, Customer Communications Group

No. Honestly, part of the cachet of Starbucks is the naming of the individual drinks. That hasn't stopped anyone from lining up for a half hour in the morning in order to order a "double shot mocha non-fat latte with a shot of caramel, no foam."

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Debbie Hauss, Editor-in-Chief, Retail TouchPoints

I'd flip this question around. Instead of "does it clear up confusion?" my first response to this article was "does it eliminate some of the cool factor to drinking coffee?" Can you charge as much for really, really, milky coffee as you do for a caffe latte? Do customers feel worse about buying an XL coffee than a "venti"? I'd be really interested to see how that psychology plays out....

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Nikki Baird, Managing Partner, RSR Research

A latte is 2/3 milk; a cappuccino is 2/3 foam. As a former CMO of a coffee franchise, we always wanted to educate customers. I don't think these descriptions do that. If they had done this 10 years ago, it might have been relevant, but in a Starbucks world, it seems silly.

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Bob Phibbs, President/CEO, The Retail Doctor


Joe Nassour, Chief Technology Officer, RetailTactics

Part of the coffee experience is the romance of naming the beverages. Plain, dull, simple English would dampen that experience. This is true of other food products as well. Would you rather have penne arribbiatta or round noodles in spicy red sauce? One conjures up images of Italy, the other an industrial park.

Food is a sensory experience. That experience should be heightened through language.

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Max Goldberg, President, Max Goldberg & Associates

Heck, convoluted language has worked for lawyers, consultants, and government for generations, why not for coffee? So if the idea is to maintain a superior position over the unwashed and to avoid being customer centric, I'd say stay with confusion.

As an FYI the root of "convoluted" means 'to roll up together' and "confusion" means 'disorder, shame, mental overthrow'. It also means 'to pour together'...so both work in describing these word games.

As Oscar Wilde said: "I'm so clever that sometimes I don't understand a word of what I'm saying."

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Ian Percy, President, The Ian Percy Corporation

I think that some of it is good. Labeling sizes in plain English does make sense, but calling espresso "really strong coffee" is a bit much. Does this mean the Brits should start calling pasta "noodles," Gelato "really rich ice cream" and Tiramisu "really decadent chocolate pudding"?

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Zel Bianco, President, founder and CEO, Interactive Edge

I am constantly amazed at the wording of orders placed by customers at Starbucks. I still work out my request with the deliberation I used for solving equations. So there's me and then everyone else who has learned the language of coffee. Simple language could work for some of our foreign tourists, but wait...much of coffee talk is universal.

I think the fancy jargon adds to the cache of those who enjoy cache. It also provides a sense of customization that shoppers don't experience in other venues. So bottom line I don't see the upside for translating latte to frothy milk.

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Joan Treistman, President, The Treistman Group LLC

Exotic language creates mystique, mystique creates curiosity, curiosity creates desire, desire creates sales. And there you have Starbucks: a stronger cup of coffee, artfully enhanced, and mystically described in a manner that creates desire. That phenomenon converted a 50 cents a pound coffee commodity into "must have" and costlier routine -- every day yet.

As to other categories, plain English explains things better, but that does not necessarily create more benefits. In terms of an old, old radio show, "I Love a Mystery."

Gene Hoffman, President/CEO, Corporate Strategies International

The mystique would be lost in the process, which is how and why you get to charge $5.00 for a $1.00 cup of coffee.

As to the descriptions in "Plain English" -- they confused me. I know what "Black Coffee" is -- so why call it "Simple"? Also, a latte is made with espresso, so why not say so?

As to categories of business that could benefit from a translation from jargon into English -- how about law, banking, consulting and -- above all -- marketing?

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Ryan Mathews, Founder, ceo, Black Monk Consulting

So Debenhams decided to tell their customers what they are buying and consuming in plain language. And they did so in front of the skeptics and competition. Is this gutsy, or about time? I think both. It is also a move to include a simple majority of consumers that have chosen not to participate in the decision to buy at Debenhams because of a lack of practice in "worldly" vernacular.


I have always found "cachet" and "cool," in whatever form, to be divisive and exclusionary. Now relax, not attacking anybody. Just how I feel. Can't help it. It's still America (although it may not be for long.) I would welcome an interlinear translation, much as I appreciated the "trot" interlinear translation of Caesar's Gallic Wars in high school. I'm definitely not cool, however,

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Warren Thayer, Editorial Director & Co-Founder, Frozen & Refrigerated Buyer

England does not have a reputation as being a coffee drinking country and -- not to be overly critical, but it shows here. That having been said, I'm surprised this, um, condescension is coming from Debenham's, which I understood to being a rather sophisticated retailer. (Perhaps that's the problem, and the clientele doesn't understand a plebeian beverage.)


I noticed on my recent (and first) visit to Australia that they had fewer Starbucks than any other country in Asia, by far. Then I learned that Australia has their own completely unique coffee terminology -- personally, I favor a flat white in Australia -- and I wonder if Starbucks' own unique lingo isn't at the root of their relative lack of presence in Australia. Anecdotally, I found that no one seemed to know or care about Starbucks or what venti means and they all just assumed their own coffee culture was better than anything imported from the States.


Frankly, I go to McDonald's in the airport rather than Starbucks because in the time it takes the people in front of me who use 20 adjectives to describe their coffee to order, I can order, pay for and be enjoying mine. I do agree with those who stated that it makes it much harder to charge the prices that Starbucks and some others charge if you simplify the language used to order.

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Steve Montgomery, President, b2b Solutions, LLC

This is just a cute little marketing ploy and would not be a translatable trend across the coffee house universe. People who just want a quick cup 'o joe don't care what you call it -- just give them their caffeine! For the vast majority of coffeehouse patrons, however, the fun is in the mystique and the experience. Most love the fun of the unique names.

Mike Osorio, Senior VP Organizational Change Management, DFS Group

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