Starbucks Launches Instant-Coffee Onslaught on SNL

Four 15-Second Spots Challenge Consumers to Taste the Difference

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CHICAGO ( -- Starbucks aired the first creative for its Via Ready Brew during the season premiere of "Saturday Night Live" last night. Four 15-second spots from agency BBDO, New York, challenged consumers to a taste test at its cafes this week, to discern the difference between its much-lauded instant product and the Starbucks house brew.

The company wouldn't confirm details about the upcoming national advertising campaign for Via, other than the official launch date, this Sept. 29. An executive familiar with the matter cautioned that "SNL" creative may not reflect the look and feel of the upcoming campaign. The first spots depict groups of people -- such as those who look like their dogs, and a jockey, rabbi and a priest walking into a bar -- who can't tell the difference between the coffees.

During the company's third-quarter earnings call in July, Mr. Schultz described the Via campaign as one that would be a significant investment for the chain, which dramatically under-spends its peers. "We are going to create a very creative campaign that will be different than what we've done to date," he said, adding that the brand "will take advantage of the social media that we have become very good at as well as traditional levels of media."

"SNL" is now an established broadcast vehicle of choice for Starbucks, which runs TV ads rarely. The chain ran its first TV ad in nearly a year just before the November election, offering a free coffee to anyone who voted. The offer was later amended to include all Americans. (Freebies for voters, it turns out, are illegal.) It has since used TV only sparingly, to promote its partnership with RED, and to encourage volunteerism.

For Starbucks, the creative launch caps a two-week, cross-country road trip in which the chain's social-media guru, Brad Nelson, comedienne Erin Foley, and an PR entourage from Edelman stopped at carefully selected locations, handing out Via samples, and posting web videos on Starbucks' YouTube channel. The group stopped in Iowa last week, where a dairy farm named a newborn calf "Starbucks Via Ready Brew." It will be called "Via" for short. On Friday, they stopped for lunch at Al's #1 Italian Beef on Chicago's South Side, asking consumers to try Via with their sandwiches. The team completed its tour in New York on Saturday.

Starbucks has been test marketing Via in Seattle and Chicago since March, and CEO Howard Schultz has said sales are ahead of expectations. The chain later added London as an additional test market. Starbucks used Costco, Target and Barnes & Noble locations with Starbucks cafes, as well as its own restaurants, as points of sale of Via during the test phase.

Mr. Schultz has described the instant-coffee market as a $17 billion category, and one that has not had significant innovation, aside from packaging, in decades. Starbucks has been working on Via on and off for 20 years. One breakthrough with this product, the company has said, is that it is not freeze dried. Mr. Schultz has also said that Via presents additional opportunities in the U.S., where instant-coffee drinkers are a small minority, and "additional usage occasions" are highly probable. For that reason, he maintains, cannibalization of store sales aren't expected.

"Via, I think, has given us an opportunity to recognize we've got a very big category without a lot of innovation." He said in July, adding that since "people have so much trust in our brand and the coffee delivers, we have something I think that people want to hear about."

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