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How strong is your coffee?

The influence of visual metaphors and textual claims on consumers’ flavour perception and product evaluation

Anna Fenko, Roxan de Vries, and Thomas van Rompay

This study investigates the relative impact of textual claims and visual metaphors displayed on the product’s package on consumers’ taste experience and product evaluation. For consumers, strength is one of the most important sensory attributes of coffee. The experimental study compared the effects of visual metaphor of strength (an image of a lion located either on top or on the bottom of the package of coffee beans) and the direct textual claim (“extra strong”) on consumers’ responses to coffee, including product expectation, taste evaluation, strength perception and purchase intention. The results demonstrate that both the textual claim and the visual metaphor can be efficient in communicating the product attribute of strength. The presence of the image positively influenced consumers’ product expectations before tasting by enhancing their aesthetic appreciation of the package. The textual claim increased the perception of strength of coffee and the purchase intention of the product. The location of the image also played an important role in taste perception and purchase intention. The image located on the bottom of the package increased the perceived strength of coffee and purchase intention of the product compared to the image on top of the package. This result is in line with the grounded cognition theory and suggests the unconscious influence of the cognitive metaphor “strong is heavy” on taste perception and product evaluation. Further research is needed to better understand the relationships between a metaphorical image and its spatial position in food packaging design.

Frontiers in Psychology, 05 February 2018


Taste and flavour are the main factors people consider when buying food (Cardello, 1994; Lappalainen Kearney, & Gibney, 1998; Steptoe, Pollard, & Wardle, 1995). However, in supermarkets and food stores consumers rarely have an opportunity to taste products before purchase. Therefore, when making a purchase decision people rely more on packaging cues and previous knowledge (Creusen & Schoormans, 2005; Schifferstein, Fenko, Desmet, Labbe, & Martin, 2013). Consumers form certain expectations about the taste and flavor of food products by examining different attributes of packaging, such as its color, shape, material, text, typeface and images displayed on the packaging (Deliza, MacFie, & Hederley, 2003; Jaeger, 2006). Expectations affect consumer judgments about food quality and its hedonic properties after tasting and are very robust against later disconfirmation (Cardello & Sawyer, 1992; Tuorila, Cardello, & Lesher, 1994).

The framework of multisensory human-food interaction suggests that sensory attributes of packaging can influence not only the general food expectations, but can directly affect multisensory food experience, such as taste and flavour. Multiple studies within this framework have demonstrated that sensory packaging elements can communicate various attributes of food. For instance, hedonic and health benefits of food products can be successfully communicated by certain combinations of packaging material and color (Fenko, van Lith & Galetzka, 2015), packaging shape and the sound of product name (Fenko, Lotterman, & Galetzka, 2016). Taste intensity and evaluation have been shown to depend on packaging shape (Becker, Van Rompay, Schifferstein, & Galetzka, 2011), material (Krishna & Morrin, 2008; Van Rompay, Finger, Saakes & Fenko, 2016) and color (Kauppinen‐Räisänen, 2014; also see Spence, 2016 for the overview of the effects of packaging design).

We suggest that not only sensory elements of the package, such as colour and material, can influence multisensory food experience, but also the informational elements such as text and images. Most food packaging designs comprise both textual elements (brand name, product category, nutrition information, attribute claims, etc.) and images. Some images are directly related to the contents of the product, depicting a product itself, its ingredients or a meal that can be prepared from it. The images can also be metaphorically associated with the brand and communicate certain brand values (like an image of Jolly Green Giant on a pack of canned vegetables or an image of Pillsbury Doughboy on a pack of baking powder). Textual claims and images communicate different product properties (e.g., a text can contain a health claim, while an image can communicate hedonic benefits) or the same product attribute (such as intensity, naturalness or freshness).

Metaphorical images are widely used in food packaging, but their effects on consumer responses have not been studied systematically. Furthermore, the relationships between metaphorical images and textual claims that can convey the same message remain unclear. The novelty of our study is determined by its focus on the relative effects of textual claims and metaphorical images on food package and their ability to change multisensory food experience, including flavour perception and product evaluation. The study aims to answer the following research question:

To what extent does a visual metaphor of strength compared to a textual claim of strong coffee depicted on a package of coffee beans influence consumers’ product expectations, flavour perception and purchase intention?

Visual metaphors

In many cases, usage of visual elements implies metaphor usage whereby the product or brand (target domain) is related to another domain (source domain; see Forceville, 2002). For example, the product attribute of strength (e.g., strength of coffee; target domain) can be metaphorically represented by an image of a strong animal, such as a lion (“strong as a lion”; source domain). In consumer research, usage of metaphors has been shown to enhance appreciation of product and brand (McQuarrie & Mick, 2003; Phillips & McQuarrie, 2009).

One reason for this is that metaphors present consumers with a ‘puzzle’ to be solved. For instance, when visualizing a lion’s head on a coffee package to convey strength, consumers have to figure out how ‘coffee’ (the target domain) and a ‘lion’ (the source domain) are related. Arguably, solving this ‘puzzle’ is rewarding and hence may inspire positive evaluations (Heckler & Childers, 1992; McQuarrie & Mick 2003; Ortony, 1993).

We suggest that an image of a strong animal (such as a lion) can serve as a relevant visual metaphor for a strength of coffee. Therefore, we propose the following hypothesis:

A coffee package with an image of a lion as a metaphor for strength will positively influence consumers’ product expectations, flavour perception and purchase intention compared to a package without an image of a lion.

Several studies have shown that explanatory information may enhance visual metaphor effects (e.g., Leder, Carbon & Ripsas, 2006; Millis, 2001), especially when the metaphor is difficult to understand without additional information (Philips, 2000; Van Rompay & Veltkamp, 2014). Similar idea that verbal texts could support and clarify the implicit meaning of images has been earlier proposed by Roland Barthes (1977) who referred to this phenomenon as “verbal anchoring”. We expect that the effects of metaphor usage will be stronger when accompanied by a textual claim accentuating the metaphor, and thus guiding participants in metaphor ‘resolution’. Hence, we further propose the following hypothesis:

The positive effects of the metaphorical image of strong coffee on consumers’ product expectations, flavour evaluation and purchase intention will be enhanced when accompanied by a textual claim guiding consumers in interpreting the metaphor.


To look at the relative impact of text and metaphorical images on consumer responses to coffee, we conducted the experiment with the 3 (image on top of the package vs. image on the bottom of the package vs. no image) x 2 (text claim vs. no text claim) between-subjects design. The field experiment took place at one of the Starbucks coffee houses in a medium-sized city in the Netherlands. Participants were exposed to one of the six packaging designs for a fictional brand of coffee beans and were offered a sample cup of coffee allegedly prepared from these beans. The coffee they tasted was a regular coffee from a well-known Dutch brand prepared with a French press and served in a simple plastic cup. Before tasting coffee, participants were asked to look at the package and to evaluate their product expectations. After sampling coffee, participants were asked to evaluate the taste of coffee, its perceived intensity, its expected physiological effects and their purchase intention.

Based on the results of the pre-study, the text claim ‘Extra strong’ (‘extra sterk’ in Dutch) and the visual metaphor of a lion were selected for the main study. The final packages for the experimental study are presented in Figures 1 to 6.


The results have demonstrated that Image significantly influenced Product Expectation, Perceived Strength of coffee and Purchase Intention of the product. These effects are shown in Figure 7. Participants had significantly more positive expectations of the product when they saw packages with an image of a lion compared to the package without an image. However, participants perceived coffee as significantly stronger when they saw the image on the bottom of the package compared to image on top or the package without an image. The results for Purchase Intention showed a similar pattern: consumers were more likely to buy the product when the image of a lion was positioned on the bottom compared to the packages with the image on top and no image.

This result is in line with previous studies that found an association between a lower position of an image on the package and the idea of heaviness (Van Rompay & Veltkamp et al., 2014). This result can be further explained by the comments made by the participants in our pre-study focus group. They described strong taste as being “heavy” on the tongue. Therefore, our results confirm that the experience of strength can be related to the idea of heaviness and can be therefore communicated by lower spatial position of an image on product packaging.

This result could be interpreted from the perspective of the grounded cognition theory. From this perspective, a picture in the lower part of the package would (automatically) activate the “strong is heavy” metaphor. As heavy objects are in our everyday interactions associated with a position on the ground, this would explain why perceiving a visually heavy package (i.e., with the lion positioned in the bottom part) would lead to the experience of a strong coffee.

Fig 7

Text significantly influenced Perceived Strength of coffee and Purchase Intention. Participants perceived coffee as significantly stronger when they saw the textual claim “Extra strong” compared to the package without a claim . The presence of the claim also significantly increased Purchase Intention compared to the package without a claim. Both effects are shown in Figure 8.

Fig 8


This study demonstrates that the use of textual claims and metaphorical images depicted on a package of coffee beans can significantly change consumers’ product expectations, the strength perception of coffee and purchase intention. Textual claims seem to be more efficient in directly communicating clear and simple product attributes, such as strength and thus positively influence purchase intention. A metaphorical image depicted on the package is able to communicate the same attribute in an indirect way. In addition, an image can enhance the aesthetic quality of the package and increase general product expectations. The location of the image on the package is also important for consumer experience. The results of our study suggest that placing an image on the bottom of the package can metaphorically communicate certain product attributes (such as intensity, heaviness and strength) and thus increase consumers’ purchase intention for consumers who value these attributes.

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