The irony of Starbucks VIA instant coffee

In development for 20 years, news of Starbucks instant coffee project was leaked 5 days before today’s unveiling; conveniently, just enough time for buzz to circulate over the weekend before the official announcement.

The product, called “Via” will be initially marketed in Seattle and Chicago. In a statement this morning to the Huffington Post, CEO Howard Schultz indicated that, “regardless of our ubiquity, that customers continue to tell us they want more Starbucks, and more ways and opportunities to enjoy it.”

Richard Honack, a senior lecturer at the Kellogg School of Management supports the approach, commenting, “instant coffee just gives Starbucks another way to reach consumers. They’ve got everything else on the shelf; they might as well have instant coffee,” in an AdAge article on Monday.

I find it ironic that almost two years ago to the day, Schultz himself complained in his most famous leaked memo titled -I kid you not- “The Commoditization of the Starbucks Experience,” about company directives that were “watering down of the Starbucks experience.” Go read it. I’ll wait.

So how, how may I ask, is the push to market instant coffee any different than the espresso machine automation, cookie-cutter store designs and lack of coffee aroma that Schultz himself argued were individually made on their own merit, but together, “much more damaging than the individual pieces.” Did he read the memo?

As I was quoted as saying in today’s AP article on the subject: “I see it as being a very short-term approach to a long-term brand problem.” To me, it appears that the company is rushing to throw out any product that it can find to make more money from its recognition and customer traffic today, but not thinking of how that weakens the overall image for tomorrow — just as they did with automated espresso machines, cookie-cutter store designs, lack of coffee aroma, breakfast sandwiches and so on.

Who knows what other ideas have been “in development” in the back of a filing cabinet somewhere in Seattle for the last 20 years.

It’s surprising that Howard Schultz does not recognize the ironic similarity between his recent management decisions and the ones he complained about only 2 years ago before returning as head the company. Even more surprising is that no one has questioned him about it.

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The irony of Starbucks VIA instant coffee

3 Responses

  1. I honestly can’t judge their instant coffee until I have a chance to try it, so I am not going to even attempt to attack the quality of VIA. I am a little sad to see them devalue their brand even further by offering yet another product that encourages getting the heck out of their stores.

    Howard Schultz always talked about a coffee shop becoming that “third place,” and it was great motivation when I was putting my shop together. I searched for ways to keep my customer in the store.

    More and more, when I visit my local Starbucks, I truly feel unwelcome – much like I am visiting the McDonald’s of coffee. The staff is still polite, the drink is still what I expect, but once my money is out of my pocket and the drink is in my hand, I can either sit in an incredibly uncomfortable (yet pleasant looking) chair, or head back out the front door. The Starbucks here even has a drive-thru, complete with annoying speaker box/menu board, to help move us along.

    In this economy it takes innovation to keep your doors open, while I’m sure that Starbucks would survive either way, I wish that they would put their right brain to work creating something exciting that brought us back into the coffee house, instead of something that shoved us back out into the world.

    February 17, 2009 at 6:30 pm #
  2. Andrew – have you tried it yet? I ordered a sample out of some strange curiosity, but haven’t had the guts to try it…

    Mark Graban March 18, 2009 at 3:38 pm #
  3. Waiting for my sample and looking forward to it. I want to cup the whole bean and instant side-by-side, then post the results.

    Andrew Hetzel March 19, 2009 at 4:50 pm #

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