Sunday, October 4, 2009

Via Will Kill the Starbucks Star

I am a huge fan of Starbucks. Good Starbucks, bad Starbucks, Starbucks from the grocery store, Starbucks mugs, Starbucks ice cream. Even the New York Times reads better at Starbucks. It’s not just that I like the coffee – honestly, Panera’s is better and Trader Joe’s tastes about the same – but the fact that the company is in many ways synonymous with the term “branding.” In fact, I can’t even think of the term without thinking of that company.

(What the heck does this post have to do with government? Nothing, except that a lot of us stand in line every day first thing for about ten minutes, just so we can tote a hot steaming “Venti” cup of this distinctively branded brew to the office, just so we can start our high-pressure days incredibly hyped on caffeine.)

It is because I am such a fan of this brand that I am going to take them to task for what is a very stupid, I believe brand-destroying mistake. And that is the introduction of the very opposite of what their brand stands for – instant coffee, which they call Via.

This isn’t the first time I’ve given Starbucks brand advice from the perspective of an interested outsider who happens to also be a branding fiend. Two years ago, after Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz rightly wrote that the brand was in danger of becoming a commodity, I suggested they take the bold step of reinventing themselves under a new name. This would have represented an incredible risk – investing enormous goodwill (read money, brand equity) from a known brand at its peak to an unknown entity with no track record. But I believed strongly that the new brand would be just as popular and would benefit infinitely from the association with its popular but tragically deceased predecessor. Not to mention that by killing the brand while it was still alive, there would have been tons of money to make from the memorabilia.

At the time, my idea sounded all-out crazy to some. Blogger John Moore called it “ill-advised, absurd, inconceivable, and just too audacious to do.”

Well, you know what? The jury is still out on this instant coffee idea, but I am betting that it’s a bit fat belly flop into the Olympic pool, meant to milk every last bit out of the brand before it goes kaput.

After all, who on earth, after inventing the sacred space of a retail cathedral dedicated to an amazing experience drinking a cup of fresh-brewed, specially crafted coffee, would reduce all of it to a tiny $1 flavoring packet that anyone can dump into a Styrofoam cup of hot water?

I don’t care what they call that packet or how great the packaging or the name is. I literally feel like I am watching the brand self-destruct.

And no, it doesn’t matter if the taste is just as good as regular, despite the TV commercials promoting the taste test. Does it matter if Pepsi tastes better than Coke? Piece by piece, Starbucks has broken every single one of its brand promises. And you wait and see - McDonald’s with its “Premium Roast,” going for the same $1, is going to clobber them in the end.

You see, what Starbucks doesn’t seem to get is that you can’t extend the brand promise infinitely. At some point, the rubber brand will break. The promise is an experience that is ultimately in the consumer’s mind. And when you keep on stretching the illusion, at some point the consumer just doesn’t care anymore.

Further, what they also don’t seem to understand is that instant coffee is itself a kind of brand. It represents dusty, bad-quality, last-resort, cheap junk. The kind you find with sugar packets, a big jug of powdered creamer, and a bad coffeemaker in the back of an office “kitchen” area. It is not at all the kind of thing that Starbucks should ever be associated with.

Customers have forgiven Starbucks for quite a bit when it comes to stretching the brand, if you ask me. I don’t know the chronology, but some of the primary milestones were

--Selling the coffee packaged in grocery stores
--Setting up stands (or letting others do so) in airports, hotels, and now grocery stores too – sometimes with only a sign stating “We proudly brew Starbucks” to substitute for an actual retail environment
--Branching out into innumerable products aside from coffee and coffee-related items -- ice cream, chocolate, breath mints, etc.
--Print advertising and TV commercials, which detracted from its “buzz”quality

You can tell that someone is trying to milk the brand with Via because they can’t even get the story straight. For at first Schultz said it was about increasing “affordability” (Huh? The brand is supposed to be a bit pricey) and now the ads in the stores say it’s about portability – e.g., “you can take it with you wherever you go.” (Technically the product was launched in February but it didn’t go national until last week.)

I know that I work in government, and private sector is all about the bottom line, and that Starbucks is just another business. But I do believe, unlike some others who have written negatively about branding as a capitalist tool (e.g. Naomi Klein’s book and Obsessive Branding Disorder), that branding can be a force for something higher, something that has little to do with money in the end. Starbucks is supposed to be that kind of brand, in a class with Amazon, Apple, McDonald’s, Harley-Davidson, and to a lesser extent Nike and Coca-Cola. The people who start and maintain these brands have a responsibility to the community that supports them, a duty not to tear the illusion down without some kind of fair warning. And Starbucks has crossed the line with the introduction of instant coffee.

If anybody from Starbucks is listening -- it’s not too late. Admit that Via was a mistake, a greedy mistake, bury Starbucks respectfully now, and launch a new replacement brand while there is still time. If you need a name quickly, I have two suggestions. One is “Schultz,” after the founder of the company, and the other is “1971,” the year the original company was founded. Both represent the spirit of purity, back to basics, the heart that made the original Starbucks special.

Good luck.


All views my own. Please feel free to repost.