Boycott Watch  
Friday, November 6, 2009
Product review: Starbucks Via Coffee.
Summary: While Via may need time to catch on, it is worth trying.
    One month after a bold debut marketing campaign, the new Starbucks Via coffee has not made much of a splash in the market. The coffee is good, tasting nearly like the regular Starbucks coffee. Starbucks calls it "coffee in an instant" and not "instant coffee" for a reason - it is a completely different product. Instant coffee is generally brewed in giant batches and is then freeze dried, or in plain English the water is removed leaving dried coffee granules. Adding hot water, therefore, reconstitutes instant coffees. With the Starbucks Via product, the coffee bean is super-finely ground. When water is added, the roasted bean product completely dissolves. Another major factor is the freshness - just like the first cups of a jar of instant coffee tastes best, Starbucks Via comes in individual packets so each packet tastes fresh, no matter how long you keep it. Also, Starbucks Via tastes more like fresh brewed coffee than any instant, including individual packets.

    Some Starbucks connoisseurs are able to tell the difference, but all will also say the taste is almost identical and that it is a great alternative when they can't get the real thing. That is exactly what Starbucks had in mind when the created the product - a near perfect alternative to visiting their stores. The one thing Starbucks Via cannot recreate though is the Starbucks experience. Regardless if you buy a Vento mocha caramel frappuccino, a double soy decaf pumpkin spice latte with an extra shot hold the whip or just plain coffee, Via customers won't get the satisfaction of being able to order their morning coffee in a million different combinations. That's okay though. Via is not meant to be offer ultimate coffee experience which Starbucks customers can only get on the stores, but it does fill in the blanks for Starbucks customers who just can't make it to their favorite store as often as they want to.

    Overall Via is a very good product and instant coffee drinkers will most likely prefer the Starbucks Via Columbian coffee over their regular instant; and regular Starbucks customers will probably prefer the Italian roast. As with any coffee, you control the strength so people who feel the regular Starbucks coffee is too strong for them can easily adjust Via to their liking with the amount of water in their cup. Via's higher price per cup though means it will compete with other instant coffee packet products, not larger jars of instant coffee, and that puts Via in a niche market. In some stores Starbucks has extended their "Via Challenge" to new customers who ask about the product, and in some cases they may offer you a coupon for free cup of coffee just for trying it. You can also expect to see various in-store promotions of Via since the product appears to be slow to catch on. Yesterday, Starbucks reported strong fourth financial results, but that is not due to Via sales. The payback for the financial investment in the creation and promotion of Via will not be known for a few more months, but the fact that the company reported better than expected earnings with the product development expenses is a good financial sign for the company, especially as the economy starts a recovery. From a consumer standpoint Boycott Watch does not see Via as an instant hit, but it will certainly not turn consumers away from Starbucks stores either. Via may need time to catch on. It will and it is worth trying.

* Starbucks and Starbucks Via are trademarks of Starbucks Coffee Company.

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