Back to basics: Over-marketed coffee

Coffee shops have a lot going for them, not the least of which is the charm of their understated simplicity — after all, people just want coffee. Given that, it’s easy to pinpoint the beginning of Starbucks’ struggle as the time when the company’s focus changed from coffee to coffee and all its possible accoutrements.

Last week, Starbucks announced its latest strategy for upping the ante within its market — not other coffee shops, but McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts, the low-cost competition. The strategy: a return to the basics, with an “everyday” blend, the new Pike Place Roast. The PP Roast comes in response to regulars’ complaints that they never know what the coffee will taste like, since the ’Bucks changes it up every day. Now, this signature blend will be offered daily as a way to insure consistency in flavor.

And along with the new blend, Starbucks had a new (albeit very temporary) strategy for showcasing the PP Roast. In a display of incredible wastefulness, Starbucks instructed its baristas to toss any brew more than 30 minutes old. Last Tuesday, an article quoted Starbucks Chairman/CEO Howard Schultz as saying, “We’ll be pouring out more coffee than most people serve.” In a world that’s quickly going green, it’s hard to believe that such a strategy made it to the table, let alone into practice. Such smug wastefulness also greatly contradicts the “back to basics” concept supposedly associated with the PP Roast.

Starbucks is being so smart, it’s being dumb. The over-marketing is unappealing — the wasted brew and the “back-to-basics” gimmicks are being sold to the customers the same way Starbucks tries to sell the idea of a Skinny Latte, a pointless exercise in simplification that fails, because it’s just as easy to say, “Give me a skim latte,” as it is to say, “Give me a Skinny Latte.”

In the end, Starbucks is just selling yet another image. The kicker is that going back to basics could be as easy as a focus on good coffee and good prices, without the special effects. Throwing out coffee every 30 minutes isn’t basic, it’s stupid. Come on, Starbucks.

Editorial Dissent

Small coffeeshops that avoid the pretensions of hipster-dom reign supreme over Starbucks in coffee quality and atmosphere. That said, Starbucks can keep messing up — it just helps the small guys.