Dear Starbucks

the business of coffee houses

Dear Starbucks

Postby Mike Ferguson on Thu Oct 01, 2009 1:46 pm

A Coffee Memo edition of the FGC blog from the writer's corner on Mike's desk.

Dear Starbucks,
I know you’re busy, what with marketing and distribution of your instant coffee going national and opening stores not named Starbucks and everything. Then there is that damned $1.89 iced coffee over at…another retailer. These things are just the tip of the iceberg, I’m sure. The last two years have been challenging. I want just a moment of your time. I'm writing for myself, but as you might guess, I'm also writing to you on behalf of the industry segment that gave birth to you and raised you, the Specialty Coffee Industry.

Look, I know things between you two have been awkward for some time, but think about the early days, when the Specialty Coffee Industry and Starbucks were close and your futures appeared to be inseparable, when you spent time together because you wanted to, not because you felt a “family obligation.” That was before you started hanging out with soda pop makers, fully automatic espresso machines, and coffee companies that, well, I’m just going to say it, roast something less that specialty grade coffee. This was before you grew so big that people began to mistake you for the parent and the Specialty Coffee Industry for the child. You know, your older brother Peet has never really forgiven you for letting people think that.

But I don’t want to focus on the negative. You went out into the world and made a place for yourself. That is how life works. And we recognize that you kept some of the values with which you were raised. The Specialty Coffee Industry has always been proud of your commitment to the proper brewing of drip coffee. Though we all sometimes wished your coffee was not roasted so dark, we recognized that this was part of your personality, and had been since you where a baby.

We might not have said anything, but we noticed that consumers could still often find some very fine specialty coffee, whole bean, at many of your stores. We noticed these little things, these acknowledgements of your childhood. I mean, we didn’t like how you handled your infatuation with Clover, but we recognized the gesture, the attempt to recapture something from your youth and refocus in uncertain times.

I know what you’re thinking. This is the point where we usually start lecturing you and giving you unwanted advice, which always ends with you telling us that we have no idea who you really are and that we don’t understand the pressure you’re under. You’re probably right when you say that.

So, no lecturing this time, no “self-righteous diatribes” about quality. There is nothing the Specialty Coffee Industry can tell you that you have not heard a hundred times before and already knew anyway. We have just this simple request, and it’s about this “Taste Challenge” you’re doing with the VIA.

Sweetie, it’s embarrassing. I think we’ve already had our say in the past about your selling instant coffee, which is just, well, backpacking food, so we won’t go into it again. But whose idea was the whole taste challenge set-up anyway? Did this idea come from one of your soda pop industry friends? Because that’s the sort of thing they use to do…in the 1970’s.

Okay, okay, I said I wouldn’t lecture, but I have just this last question. Why do you keep telling everyone you meet that this VIA is just as good as your regular coffee? It says nothing about this new product of yours and everything about your drip coffee.

This is our request. Sell all the VIA you want. Buy a giant billboard in Time Square and be as proud as you can be about creating the best backpacking coffee on the market. Go head to head with Nestle and slice a sweet chunk out of their pie. But please stop telling consumers that you can fool them into thinking they are tasting real coffee.

Finally, we just want to tell you again, you can always come home. No matter what, there will always be a place for you. Of course, we won’t let you make VIA in the house, but you can set up the camp stove in the tool shed if that’s what makes you happy.
Mike Ferguson
Batdorf & Bronson Coffee Roasters
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Re: Dear Starbucks

Postby Aldo1 on Mon Oct 05, 2009 12:58 pm

So, did anyone else partake of this "Taste Challenge"? I did it today.

They have two Vias -- if I remember correctly, one was Columbian (the one I tasted vs Pikes Place) and a darker "Italian Roast". I could tell the difference between the Pikes Place and the Via, but then again, neither is a cup of black coffee I would seek. Via compared to mass market coffees: not bad. Might be the best instant coffee I have ever had, but that is a short list from long ago memories.

It is all so odd to me. I get that Starbucks wants a piece of the large, instant coffee market. But I can't figure out why they want a marketing campaign the invites the retail bar comparison. A campaign that says "you can't tell our 'regular roast' from the instant" -- seems to me this is an indictment against the "regular roast" -- might as well be issuing a death knell to their 'retail regular roast' quality claim, its freshness, whole beans vs pre-ground, etc. and their shops that sell it. If true, why bother? A paradigm shift? (shudders with memories of business school.)
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Re: Dear Starbucks

Postby Jason Haeger on Mon Oct 12, 2009 7:37 am

We've all been indoctrinated into the mentality of a coffee professional who has constant contact with quality coffee with little to no compromise. That having been said, I'd venture to say that what Starbucks has in mind is not what most of our first impressions will be.

They are expecting a decline of in-store sales, and the instant coffee being compared to their brewed coffee, I believe, is an attempt to make a sale where a sale would otherwise be lost. By comparing them, they are saying, "See, you can afford this, and it tastes practically the same!" It's a plea to existing customers. It's not an attempt to draw in more customers, primarily (although that's an obvious hope for any new product campaign).

Just my opinion based on my own observations.
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Re: Dear Starbucks

Postby seankohmescher on Mon Oct 12, 2009 1:46 pm

It might all be true, but it is a bit of a scam.

It is $1 and makes a cup. But, I wonder how many people realize that they just paid $1 for 8oz, which is what the serving size is. Most people that I see with a starbucks coffee are drinking a 16-20oz. coffee, which would cost you $2-$3 for the instant coffee.
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Re: Dear Starbucks

Postby Sandy on Fri Nov 13, 2009 7:54 am

Baristas, patrons steaming over Starbucks Via
Aggressive rollout of new instant coffee product brewing discontent ... _business/
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Re: Dear Starbucks

Postby Robert Goble on Fri Nov 13, 2009 10:17 am

I wonder if we could identify some of the key members of the VIA development team? I suspect there's some real interesting personal politics in this. Something like this is being driven through this hard through the retail channel (and upsetting the trajectory of retail itself) must be spearheaded by someone with great influence within the company and they must be leveraging a lot to make it happen. If this fails as either a product or if this damages retail, I can't imagine how bad the fallout will be. Anyone know anything about how the decision to use retail as the launch platform for this came about?
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Elysian Coffee
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Re: Dear Starbucks

Postby Brett Hanson on Sat Nov 21, 2009 12:12 am

Robert Goble wrote:Anyone know anything about how the decision to use retail as the launch platform for this came about?

I have no knowledge about how the product or launch came about.

It is my opinion that launching Via through retail was the only way it could possibly work. It represented a sea change in the way the company talks about coffee. I think a more consistent and less cannibalizing message could have been used, though.

If Via had first appeared anywhere outside a store, the news stories (and posts here) would have read "Starbucks suffering from multiple personality disorder". If you fully digested the rhetoric as Mike did, you'd see this is still somewhat the case, BUT it was Starbucks that you heard the message from first. Instead of having to backpedal and explain to customers why Starbucks was suddenly offering (dumping) an inferior or at least off-message product to supermarket customers while the stores were retooling back towards whole bean for all brewing, Starbucks embraced Via publicly and lent it what credibility it could before sending it off to war against the entrenched instants that have been on supermarket shelves for decades.

This would be a good place to note that grocery is an entirely different world that most folks here don't worry about (unless you're in the wholesaling arm of your roastery). While Starbucks and Peets and Stumptown appear there, the customers for this coffee and the memberlist here (almost) mutually exclusive. This could be a whole other topic of discussion.

Having said all this, I should add that many successful Starbucks grocery (CPG) launches have had their day in the stores, so some Via splash there should be no surprise. For example, there are no ice cream freezers in the stores, but there usually is an "ice cream social" day each year to highlight how you can pick up Starbucks ice cream in your local grocery store. By comparison, Via's footprint in the store is larger, but it could eventually find its way home too.
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