Will Starbucks Instant Coffee Be Their ‘New Coke’ Debacle?

starbucks via ready brew Are they tossing authenticity right out the window just like Coca Cola tried to do to its much loved ‘classic’ version?

I may be all wrong.  After all, the folks at Starbucks have undoubtedly spent a bazillion dollars in research to show that there is a need for a new kind of instant coffee. I simply have a gut reaction that their new Via Ready Brew, misses on three counts:

  1. Starbucks is all about freshly brewed, freshly ground coffee served up in an authentic Starbucks environment.  Instant coffee, by any other name, is a throwback to a time when we needed a very low-cost solution to having a single cup at home or in the office.
  2. Starbucks has a hard won image as an environmentally sensitive company that understands issues of sustainability and conservation.  How do individually plastic wrapped portions of instant coffee square with that company image? How many of those plastic wrappers will wind up in landfills around the US?
  3. Starbucks is already bucking a new cost-conscious trend among American consumers.  Now are they are asking us to shell out 80 cents for a cup of instant coffee(if you buy the 12 pack).  Of course, that’s cheaper than what we would pay for a small cup in a Starbucks retail store. But it’s 10 times more expensive than if we brew Starbucks coffee at home from a bag we can buy at the supermarket.

Possible lessons for Starbucks from the 1985 new Coke debacle

Lots of marketing gurus have suggested that Starbucks got way ahead of itself by overexpanding beyond any conceivable level of demand.  That may be true, but there are still millions of Starbucks fanatics for whom a day without Starbucks is like a day without sunshine. 

However, the Starbucks brand promise contains many elements none of which involve expensive and environmentally incorrect individual packets of instant coffee.  Oops, sorry, Via Ready Brew.

Senior management and top-level marketers at Coca-Cola similarly messed with the brand promise: that Coca-Cola had tasted a certain way ever since its invention in the late 1800s–and that you could count on that same memorable flavor forever. After all, you certainly wouldn’t mess with the flavor of Château Lafitte Rothschild based on expensive marketing research.  And there are plenty of us beverage connoisseurs who prefer Coke to Chateau Lafitte.

Wikipedia quotes their 1985 CEO about what went wrong:

“The simple fact is that all the time and money and skill poured into consumer research on the new Coca-Cola could not measure or reveal the deep and abiding emotional attachment to original Coca-Cola felt by so many people.”
     –Coca Cola CEO, Donald Keough at a press conference, reintroducing     ‘Coke Classic.’

Mess with your brand promise at your own peril

Starbucks is a great company with great products and a great consumer experience.  But I think they are about to make a great, big mistake. One thing for sure: Whatever the outcome, a fabulous Harvard Business School case study will ensue. 

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7 Comments

  1. Posted February 21, 2009 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    Newt:
    Your comments are “right on.” Expertise and research are no substitute for common sense. IMO, the Starbucks brand is not just about a cup of hot coffee. It is about the experience of the Starbucks venue. Even when Starbucks brand products are purchased off the shelf, they are selected largely because of familiarity and resonance with the remembered Starbucks cafe experience. Instant coffee no only has a bad history, antithetical to the Starbucks halo, it is almost always a lousy product. Every packet of Via they sell will be taking a nick out of the Starbucks brand. Or so I believe.

  2. Newt Barrett
    Posted February 21, 2009 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    Bill,
    Maybe they should have given us a call before they launched!
    Newt

  3. Posted February 23, 2009 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    Newt,

    Thanks for the thoughtful commentary. I don’t know if it was a bazillion, but we did do a lot of research before this move, for sure. We think there’s a great opportunity in the market, one that tastes great and is 100% natural. As coffee-lover, I have a number of uses already in mind–visiting my father who lives in the country, to send to a friend of mine who’s office has bad coffee, and for mornings when I’m in a hurry. For reasons like that I personally can’t wait to get more than just my sample versions.

    Did you get a chance to order a free sample?

    Matthew Guiste
    Starbucks

  4. Newt Barrett
    Posted February 23, 2009 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    Matthew,
    Thanks for taking the time to respond so graciously. As it happens, your timing is perfect. I am using Starbucks as a mini-case study about the importance of the blogosphere for a PR class at Florida Gulf Coast University where I am a guest lecturer tonight.
    Seconds before I was to email the presentation to the instructor, your email arrived. So I will be able to conclude the story with your kind and measured response. And, I do love Starbucks coffee, by the way.

  5. Posted February 23, 2009 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    Great! BTW, my team is in charge of all of social media (twitter, facebook, etc). You’ve got my email, I’d be happy to talk further with you if you are interested.

    Glad to hear you like Starbucks! :)

  6. Posted February 24, 2009 at 6:28 am | Permalink

    Newt & Mathew Guiste,
    Here’s my tuppence- I certainly believe that this is not a wrong move. It might sound like a step-back but hopefully its to advance ahead.I know from experience that millions spent in market research can often drip down the drain, but is there an alternative to it. Everytime I visit a Costa, or, a Nero cafe in Liverpool I always pick up their instants.Why not? Convenience is an absolute key in this era.Check out why Post Offices in UK are being forced to shut down. You’d find a similar tale.So I’d say its worth a shot by Starbucks!

  7. Kaye
    Posted October 2, 2009 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    although interesting the new Coke argument seems fallacious. I am a devoted (you could say addicted) Starbucks customer and I welcome the introduction of the instant coffee version for the following reasons:
    1) At home, I drink cheap coffee to save money even though going to Starbucks for a convenient caffeine fix or relaxing cafe experience defeats the purpose of saving money – the one evens out the other.
    2) I was recently considering switching from cheap ground coffee for my home-brewed pleasure to instant coffee in order to save more money (on filters and grounds) I am curious if instant is cheaper than brewed by the cup.
    3) I also welcome the idea of the convenient single-serving packages for air travel and for just in case.
    Who knows, it may flop – but if it tastes good and they can sell it in supermarkets, it opens a new market opportunity to coax people on smaller budget to maybe maybe stop in for the experience.
    Starbucks is not trying to replace classic Starbucks with new Starbucks, they are providing a new form for enjoying Starbucks. It’s kind of like if Coke would market a effervescent tab version of their product for making at home, for on the road, or for camping in the Brazilian rain forests. However, it may be a marketing mistake to have created the brand VIA. I would have called it ‘Starbucks’ GO’ or something.

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