It’s just a little bean that grows in the mountains of equatorial climates. Some guy with a mule picks its, dries it and ships it to the rest of the world in great quantities. Grind it up, run hot water over it and it’s a very popular drink with a kick. Brand it, serve it up with efficiency and a dash of ambiance, and a few cents worth of beans can sell for four bucks or more.
Back in the day, (or the hey day, the good ol’ days, or one I’ve never understood, the salad days) the big coffee brands fought it out for the rights to your kitchen coffee pot. Many campaigns ran for decades. Their slogans remain ingrained in many of our minds:
Good to the last drop (Maxwell House boasted that Teddy Roosevelt first spoke these words about their coffee in 1907)
Mountain grown (Folgers’ classic preemptive claim, since virtually all coffee is mountain grown)
Fill it to the rim. With Brim (a decaf brand recently resurrected)
The best part of waking up… (more Folgers)
We’ve secretly replaced the coffee at this five-star restaurant… (Hmm, Folgers again. No wonder they’re number one in the supermarket)
Everything you love about coffee, without everything you don’t (A less memorable slogan from Sanka, the first popular decaffeinated brand. Their bright orange label became so synonymous with decaf that most decaf coffee pots use the color for their handles today.)
Frillions of dollars are still spent on coffee for home coffee consumption, but today’s coffee brand battle is raging in the venues of the modern day diner-fast-service retail led by Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, McDonalds, and, lately, Seattle’s Best. The two markets combined, home and on-the-go, total an estimated $34 billion each year.
Credit Starbucks with growing the entire category of coffee service by creating the affordable luxury coffee segment and pushing for aggressive growth. In recent years, they flew a little too close to the sun with their expansion, and have been recovering from a major drop in sales that started before the Great Recession and just got worse in the depths of the downturn. In a sure sign of positive economic news for us all, however, same store sales for Starbucks were up 7% in the first quarter.
Dunkin’ Donuts, reacting to the success of Starbucks, has gone anti-snobbery with a lunch bucket approach: “America runs on Dunkin.” With limited room here for the whole story, let’s just say that using the code word “America” carries with it a huge subtext of broad appeal, including a healthy dose of basic patriotism in contrast with the upscale Euro image of half-caf cappuccinos.
McDonald’s, ever the price/value leader, invented McCafe and took some air out of Starbucks’ sails. McCafe products were surprisingly good, winning several taste tests, and offering a basic range of flavors and types that struck at the heart of Starbucks menu. The Mickie D’s product line also benefited from the economic pressures on consumers to find cheaper ways to sip that cup of Joe.
Which leaves Seattle’s Best looking for a brand angle. In 2003, Starbucks bought Seattle’s Best, in what would appear to be a smart way to expand down market, while sustaining their super premium brand. The Seattle’s Best marketing approach is rooted in co-marketing agreements they have with established retail venues such as Borders bookstores, Royal Caribbean and most recently in 300 AMC theaters and 7000 Burger King locations.
To further help them take on McCafe and Dunkin’, Seattle’s Best has just gone through a complete brand identity makeover (www.seattlesbest.com) that has replaced their traditional style logo and signage with a simplified, contemporary coffee cup sporting a large liquid drop shape in the middle. Their home page explains the change this way: “…we needed a new look to match our optimistic outlook and simplified approach to great coffee experiences.” And a few words later, “We hope you join us on this journey, starting today.”
Geez, we’re leaving today? And here I am, I haven’t packed a thing.
If being invited on a “journey” of “great coffee experiences” seems a tad self-conscious to you, it may be because it’s a reflection of how Seattle’s Best finds itself caught in a brand triangle with their own parent company in one corner and two heavy hitters in the others, each with a substantial chunk of market share and brand loyalty already staked out. Being the default choice in around 10,000 retail partner venues isn’t much of a brand concept, but it will definitely help drive their sales. Beyond that, the new-look Seattle’s Best will likely find itself fighting for every last drop of market share it can find.
It may be just a bean, but as this battle of the brands plays out, there have never been more choices for a good cup of coffee. Could be that right now is the good ol’ days for that cup of java. I think I’ll have the dark roast today. One cream, two sugars, please.