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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Starbucks Going Blonde for Lite Crowd

Consumer Affairs: Starbucks originally modeled itself on the coffee houses of Europe, trying to conjure a world where patrons linger for hours sipping espresso and debating the finer points of politics.

But in an America where political discussion consists of shouting slogans back and forth and coffee has become the base for foamy, sugar-filled concoctions that more closely resemble a chocolate shake than espresso, is it really surprising that even regular coffee must be lightened up to retain its appeal?

And so, taking a page from competitors McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts, Starbucks is launching a new blonde roast. It will launch in both Starbucks outlets and supermarket aisles in January and will be promoted through what Starbucks is calling a "360-degree" approach, meaning that Facebook, Twitter, etc., will be flooded with supposed coffee lovers gushing about the new blend.

Starbucks already does about as well with consumers as any sane person could reasonably expect. A ConsumerAffairs.com computerized sentiment analysis of about 4.7 million consumer comments on Facebook, Twitter and other social media and blogs finds an approval rating hovering around 80% over the last year.

Speaking at a Chicago press conference, Annie Young-Scrivner, Starbucks Chief Marketing Officer, said 40% of the 130 million coffee drinkers in the U.S. prefer a lighter-roast coffee. The new blend is aimed at them, as well as at the millions of onetime customers who had their first cup of Starbucks and announced it tasted like mud, or worse.

And just to build even more excitement, Ms. Young-Scrivner said the launch will be an even bigger investment than the launch of Via, Starbucks' instant-coffee, which dripped onto the scene in 2009.

Blonde will come in two varieties: Veranda and Willow. Really.

So with all this fiddling around with the product line-up, is Starbucks responding to a huge groundswell of discontent? We peered into our sentiment analysis matrix to find top likes and dislikes.


What we found may be what Ms. Young-Scrivner found: a solid 27% don't like the coffee. Of course, 29% do like it but even so -- if you were running a coffee house and more than a quarter of your customers didn't like the coffee, wouldn't you think maybe you had a problem?

Interestingly, the Starbucks gift card (38% like it) is even more popular than the coffee, which might also be a little worrisome.

So maybe the new blonde blend will do the trick but, then again, maybe American tastes are moving away from coffee. We suspect Starbucks has thought of this and planned accordingly.

You might recall that, as part of its 40th anniversary celebration, Starbucks unveiled a new logo, removing the "Starbucks Coffee" text and more prominently displaying its iconic siren (the kind that lures sailors to their fate, not the kind that clears traffic for fire engines).

You have to wonder if someday you won't be able to get a cup of coffee at Starbucks.

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