While Starbucks' launch of Via instant coffee may seem like the ultimate act of watering down a brand, the move might actually be the smartest the company has made recently. In effect, Starbucks may be waking up to reality and embracing its inner Walmart.
Claims of Starbucks PR reps and devoted fans to the contrary, the coffee purveyor long ago quit being a niche provider of a premium experience served up by knowledgeable baristas. What it is now is a reasonably comfortable third space that offers up predictable and slightly overpriced beverages in every corner of the country and beyond. Most times they're clean, and sometimes the staff is knowledgeable and friendly. But experiences may vary.
And that's fine. There's nothing wrong with being a U.S. powerhouse. When consumers want everyday low prices, they look for Walmart. When consumers want a hamburger, they drive through McDonald's. And when they want coffee, they think Starbucks.
But it's almost as if Starbucks has been unwilling to recognize what it's become. Indeed, the past few years have seen a rash of misguided attempts by the company to be everything from an arbiter of taste in the realms of music and movies to a hectoring social network. Perhaps most foolish has been talk of Starbucks returning to its roots.
Sure, the company can close hundreds of stores, switch back to manually operated machines, pay its employees a great deal more, go back to buying its beans from Peet's, and once again become that quirky little coffee shop. Let's see how the stockholders react to that.
Like any other fast-service establishment, the first order of business for Starbucks is to keep costs down while staying on top of customer service (read: less time in those infernal lines).
Beyond that, it should continue to bend to wider market forces by selling more of those sweet Frappuccino things, offering blends a little more palatable to the average American (Pike's Place), licensing products for retail outlets and, yes, offering instant coffee.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the company had fielded requests for more than 200,000 free samples of Via through online channels and planned on giving away 2.5 million. That doesn't exactly scream niche, now does it?
Old-school fanatics may whine about the "purity" of the brand. But they'll probably do it while standing in line behind everyone else at Starbucks.