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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