it’s not about the coffee

The following is a guest post by dear friend and consumer expert Brad Bennett.  Brad is an ethnographer living the Chicago area.  By stepping into consumers’ worlds, he uncovers stories that bring fresh perspective and new opportunities for clients and their brands.  Contact Brad at Info AT BBennettCo DOT com.

Starbucks is launching instant coffee.  starbucks_via_03What?!  Yes, that’s right.  They’ve been testing VIA instant coffee in Chicago, Seattle and London and are now rolling it out in Starbucks stores and other venues across the U.S. and Canada.  When it showed up in our Starbucks stores in Chicago this summer, I couldn’t believe it.  It is one more example of how they’ve lost their way.

Starbucks’ brand is anything but instant.

Starbucks is all about the experience of coffee – the smell of the store, the barista, a perfectly personalized drink, FRESH roasted and brewed coffee.

So what are they thinking?  The only thing I come up with is that they must be trying to mainstream the brand even more.  This is sad to see.

About a year ago they finally lost me.  Every day for nearly a decade I sat in their store and sipped the bold brew.  For years I withstood their strategic wanderings as they became increasingly mainstream.  But when they moved from brewing bolder coffee throughout the day to the milder Pike Place blend, that was it.  I bolted for the door.  Their move to pick up more mainstream consumers who didn’t like the intensity of their bold coffee alienated me and I assume other loyal die-hards as well.

As an ethnographer, I pay particular attention to the effect brands have on the senses – how consumers see, feel, smell, taste and hear the brand.  The senses create powerful ties to the brand.  I see it when consumers open a package and look inside to see the brand’s unique color or texture.  I observe them smell the brand as they cook a product in their home.  I see how they respond to noise and music in stores when I shop with them.  I even see it in my own home when my daughter pulls her Abercombie & Fitch top from the bag and the rest of the family smells it and says, “I know where you got that!”  AF sprays all of their clothes with AF scents.

My Starbucks experience used to be powerful and produced years of loyalty.  I didn’t want to leave them.  But they pulled the sensorial lynchpin – bold taste – and drained my cup.

They’ve lost ground.  And I’m afraid the launch of VIA means even more lost ground.  Instant coffee is not experiential and is another example of how they’ve watered down the brand.

I’ve not tasted VIA, and I probably won’t.  Yuck.  It might taste great.  I still say yuck.

Thanks, Brad, for “pouring your heart into” this post.  To everyone else, running a guest post like this is a little experiment of mine.  Please give me feedback — and if you have a brand topic that you’d like to submit a guest post on, let me know.

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  • fellow blogger martin bishop also has an interesting perspective on VIA: http://brandmix.blogspot.com/2009/09/remorseful-starbucks-tries-to-revive.html

  • Craig

    It’s funny, I ended up on a rant about this just yesterday. On Tuesday, I went to my local Starbucks and was in line while the Barista, with lots of enthusiasm, was encouraging a customer to try Via. He was clearly a long time customer, they knew each other by first name, and there was a quick exchange about this “not being like his normal coffee, but its really good, here taste!” At which point, he sipped it, said, “huh, not bad. Can I have my double shot skinny vanilla latte?” The Barista gave a cheerful nod and added a bunch about taking Via on the go and adding hot water, giving him a sample.

    My immediate reaction was “Uh, WHHATT?” I couldn’t help but be a little sarcastic (to myself of course) about how bad of an idea it is to try to sell instant coffee to an existing good customer. (i) if he likes it and starts making it instead of his $4.50 drink, Starbucks loses. (ii) if he doesn’t like it, well then, he can probably end up with similar thoughts as Brad. So how does SB win? They don’t.

    So I took my package when offered to me of my sample and brought it up to my office. I put it in the kitchen at around 11 AM, and by the next morning, it was still sitting there, next to the coffee maker / hot water dispenser. In an office full of coffee addicted workers, no one wanted to try the stuff… Interesting.

    So I tried it. “Blech” is the only thing that comes to mind. I poured it out and made a cup of Green Mountain from our Keurig. So when I was back in the store later that afternoon, one of the Baristas cheerfully asked me if I liked Via. I told her “Sadly, I didn’t really like it much” and she frowned and said “oh. ok.” That was it, no follow up, not questions about ways to make it better, no further dialouge.

    It’s almost as if the planning was “This is gonna be big – let’s get everyone hyped up and plan as if nothing will go wrong! Everyone will LOVE this!” And then they had nothing planned to deal with the situations where it didn’t go that way.

    I really wonder how much thinking went into the idea of bringing Via into their system this way. It really seems like a lose lose proposition that they are investing in today. Seems it would have been better for a product to reach customers in places where they CAN’T get to a SB store. Not in the store where they lovingly brew your coffee for you…

    Pretty sure even a First Mate should know better than that….