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Remarkability and Game Mechanics

February 27, 2015

A book about word of mouth, trending, and all round contagiousness was fittingly passed on to me by a customer of ours recently.

I really enjoyed reading this book, and felt myself saying “Yes, that’s exactly what happens” on almost every page I read. Needless to say I highly recommend the book, and this blog is about a few but not anywhere near all of the concepts and ideas explored in the text, which is Authored by Jonah Berger and titled Contagious.

The book looks a lot at social currency and influence. Using psychology and statistical research to build a comprehensive guide as to why some things catch on and why others don’t.

Two concepts that struck a particular cord with me are those referenced in the title of this blog.

Remarkability, commonly defined as "notably or conspicuously unusual; extraordinary" & "worthy of notice or attention", is in many ways flowing through the veins of speciality coffee.

The pursuit of character and flavour in coffee is all the more remarkable when juxtaposed with its more commoditised counterpart.

This presents an alternate positive perspective in regards to serving coffee, swapping the notion of restriction and lack of meeting expectation for that of increased Remarkability. For example, a speciality coffee that works solely as a black filter and struggles to be personalised and manipulated in the common way could be seen as a failure to meet customer demands, but on the flip side also has the potential to be remarked upon. All of this of course depends on framing and presentation. But questions of 'why' begin. "Why doesn't it do what most other coffee does? Why does it taste floral, you have to taste this coffee it's so interesting, I never knew coffee was so complex" and so on. The Remarkability can cascade from here. After all, there is so much that is noteworthy.

Of course, there is potential for much Remarkability in more commercial settings, it just changes nature. The sharing or the noteworthy element may be more about the seasonal concoction or the new loyalty scheme.

Speciality coffee on the other hand has this kind of natural Remarkability, and it's this very aspect that made me want to work with it and start a company based around it. In fact that shareableness of coffee's Remarkability is at the core of our concept. We often get asked whether we were concerned about doing things differently. Taking a risk etcetera,  we honestly didn't think about it. We believed in the Remarkability of speciality coffee and in the concept of making that Remarkability more visible. We struggled to see how that couldn't catch on, how that couldn't connect with an audience.

It is intriguing that the talking points of coffee that allow it to stand out are often covered up in an attempt to make it more approachable. The danger with this, clearly, is that the excitement, the word of mouth power can get lost.

Of course, unusualness and extraordinariness are relative. A coffee with bright acidity and sweetness is in the larger scheme of things pretty rare, but when immersing oneself in speciality coffee for a while, these can become somewhat normal. The goal posts change. This isn't a concern for speciality coffee, as the rabbit hole is endless. The drinker just becomes a player in a complex and engaging game, one that benefits from repeat rounds.

This leads nicely into the concept of game mechanics. Game mechanics are everywhere in our lives, sometimes in surprising places. They can be part of the conversations we have and the topics we interact with.

In service businesses we can find these game mechanics all over the place. In fact if you as a member of staff can recognise the rules of the game, the job can move from mundane to rewarding, because you can become a player in a number of games. This is dependent on specific environments and structure. For example there's nothing more frustrating than learning a set of rules and those patterns changing for no apparent reason within the construct of the game. This could be witnessed in a management decision within the business, but also by a customer whose participation doesn't stick to the rules of the game they thought they were taking part in. This could be because rules weren't clearly laid out or understood or because the business doesn't consistently deliver.

Barrier to entry presents an interesting question regarding both game mechanics and exclusiveness. Flavour notes provide all sorts of game mechanics. But can seem overwhelming and exclusive. This barrier to entry is often discussed in speciality coffee. We want everyone to take part, but can forget that we are committed players.

Take two games as an example. Articulate and magic the gathering. Articulate has a low barrier to entry. The concept is pretty intuitive with lots of potential complexity. Magic the gathering however requires a player to learn quite a lot. The rules and dynamics are more complex and less intuitively understood.

We have all sat down to play a game and thought " I've got no idea whats gong on". The truth is we are all capable of understanding the rules and taking part. But do we have the time and inclination to initiate ourselves with the game, such as would be the case with Magic the Gathering?  The same question could be asked of speciality coffee.

Speciality coffee is intriguing in that it presents layered levels of entry and education. It's easy to taste coffees and see what you think, but of course many people may have no interest in entering a flavour dynamic with a barista as host. If the choice is made, the depth of the game can expand quickly beneath your feet. The drinker can begin to learn more tasting language, to draw links between processing and flavour. On the other side of the counter , brewing itself presents a barista game theory. Getting better at brewing, better at tasting, better at the coffee game is something we all strive for, it's part of the craft. The game here can be more practical, in a commercial environment, speed, cleanliness and service present a constantly malleable and challenging game dynamic. Busy service never gets boring.

Remarkability and game mechanics raise interesting questions about accessibility. Perceived exclusiveness can be a good thing as the topic or game may be more notable and shareable. Ironically, types of exclusiveness could increase accessibility and popularity.

We hit a big audience in store. But its fair to say most visitors still feel like they are privy to something special, a game for connoisseurs. Luckily for us, being a spectator to that world, dipping your feet in, appeals to a lot of people. Many take up the game, others enter the profession, and many watch from the stalls. Importantly though, people want to talk about it.


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