Where Does This Via Lead?

Starbucks has what it believes is a better idea – premium instant coffee. This is hardly a new category, but instant coffee or most “instant” products have been more often positioned in terms of cost, convenience or other attributes. For example, the first commercially significant decaffeinated coffees were instant. Although there have been innovations such as freeze drying, which were claimed to improve the taste, instant coffees have been presented as trade-offs in which the consumer gives up a noticeable degree of taste.

Via, the brand name Starbucks has chosen for its premium priced powder, takes a different and somewhat risky approach. Namely that Via tastes like Starbucks’ brewed coffee.

The launch of the product has been interesting. It’s been supported by print, web, social media, event, and TV such as the spot below.

So far I can discover, Starbucks has not tried the more conventional package goods approach of coupons and sampling either by mail or newspaper inserts or at the types of outlets where Via will sell. Instead, they invited consumers into their retail cafes  for a blind taste test of Via vs. their conventional brew.

Both the on-line media and the in shop events are more involving than traditional product sampling. Introducing Via in a coffee shop, attempts to transfer the positive ambiance of the cafe and to the smell of coffee to initial experience. They hope to transform this into demand at non-conventional channels such as camping supply and sporting goods stores as well as their current retail and online channels.

So what’s wrong with this brew? How many will pay $0.83 for a Short coffee or $1.66 for a Grande with none of the Starbucks ambiance? IMHO, the taste of Via wasn’t substantially worse or better than what Starbucks serves in its shops. But that’s largely beside the point.

Coffee is not really Starbucks’ business, though that is what they sell, any more than watches are the real business of Rolex.

Starbucks’ real business is the experience of a welcoming place to go. There you can socialize, work, have a job interview or a business meeting. Hence the comfortable chairs, tables big enough to work on, quite background music, long hours, and often more amenable service than you generally find at a fast food outlet or donut shop. None of these are instant coffee occasions, so they should not be retrofitted into the flagship brand as a brand extension.

Business Week reports has high hopes for Via. I’ll be happy to debate that over a real cup of coffee.