it’s all about?
the fall of 1996, one of customers (a Boston, MA area retailer) told us that they had
been brewing and serving our Country French blend. They told us that some of their customers were asking if we
had anything that was darker roasted. Country
French was our darkest roast at the time, and we were amazed that Boston area
consumers would be asking for anything darker.
New England coffee consumers traditionally don’t prefer dark roasted
had developed our reputation on roasting coffee only to the point necessary to
bring out the full flavor profile that any particular variety or blend had to
offer. Consequently, we were very
resistant to roasting anything darker than our Country French, which we regarded
as very dark.
months of requests, we finally decided to give them
what they wanted. After all, we are
in business and we have a responsibility to be responsive to our customers.
However, we were very nervous about producing a product that would be
such a radical departure from the rest of our products, even our Country French
felt a strong, ethical obligation to label the product in a very distinctive
manner that would alert any consumer to be fully aware of what was in the bag
before purchasing it.
term “Charbucks” had been in widespread usage for many years all over the
United States, but during the early 90s, it was being used intensively in the
Boston, MA area. George Howell,
former owner of the, now non-existent Coffee Connection, had brought it into
prominence in the Boston area.
Coffee Connection was the most popular coffee roastery in Boston, and was known,
and highly revered, for roasting coffee in a manner identical to the way we do,
that is, not “over roasting” coffee. George
Howell, founder and owner of the Coffee Connection, regarded Starbucks as the
antithesis to what he believed in. By 1994, the Coffee Connection had expanded to twenty-one
retail outlets, and Starbucks was actively attempting to purchase the chain.
Since George felt so strongly that Starbucks “over roasted” all of
their coffee, he began to refer to Starbucks as “Charbucks” extensively.
the time, the expansion of the Coffee Connection, George had been expressing
concerns about maintaining the quality control that he believed in.
Starbucks finally offered enough money (about twenty-three million) to
George, persuade him to sell the Coffee Connection to Starbucks.
Boston area coffee consumers were horrified at the possibility that Starbucks
roasting methods would ruin their cherished Coffee Connection products.
Starbucks had developed a huge following by roasting coffee considerably
darker than many Boston area coffee connoisseurs felt was reasonable.
an effort to allay consumer fears, George Howell appeared side by side with
Starbucks CEO, Howard Schultz, in a news conference shortly after the deal had
been announced. The two assured
local consumers that Starbucks would preserve the integrity of the Coffee
proceeded to wipe out any trace of the Coffee Connection in a matter of a few
years, leaving the Coffee Connection devotees with nothing but a memory.
The former customers of the Coffee Connection were left with a profound
sense of betrayal and outrage. Usage
of the term “Charbucks” became an emotional mantra in the Boston area.
We have to assume that George Howell was quite sincere in his assurances
during that news conference, and that he was as betrayed, as were his former
customers. We also cannot assume
that there was any intent at the time, on the part of Starbucks, to do what they
did. Whether one supports their
actions or not, any business has the perfect right to alter its business
strategy at any time it wants.
the spring of 1997, it seemed to us that naming our new dark roasted coffee
“Charbucks Blend” could not have been a more perfect way for us to grab the
attention of consumers. Most of our
business was concentrated in New England. It
was the “char” part of the name that we felt was particularly direct and
blunt. We reasoned that no one
could possibly purchase the coffee by mistake.
We even added the tag line below the name, which read, “You wanted dark
… you got it dark.”
the name was going on our packaging, and since our graphics bore no similarity
whatsoever to Starbuck’s graphics, it seemed perfectly obvious that no one
could possibly be confused into thinking we were in any way connected to
was also quite obvious that the extensive use of the term “Charbucks” in the
past, had absolutely no negative affect on the spectacular growth of Starbucks.
How could our “microscopic” use of the term possibly have any effect
on what has been viewed as one of the most spectacular name recognition success
stories ever. The preposterous
notion that we could possibly slowdown the Starbucks “freight train” simply
didn’t occur to us.
comes down to a matter of the genetic makeup of an individual’s sensory
system. There are very distinct
chemical compounds created when coffee is dark roasted.
Individuals differ from one another when it comes to how these compounds
are perceived. One is either
genetically inclined to enjoy the flavor profile created by these compounds, or
just the opposite. There is nothing
we can do that will change the genetic taste preferences of the consuming
public. Starbucks has built a most
successful business based on a very sizable segment of the consuming public that
has a taste predilection for darker roasted coffee.
Is Starbucks seriously thinking that we are going to turn their customers
against them? We simply can’t
imagine what actual damage they think we can do to them, and, to date, they
haven’t been forthcoming with what they’re specifically afraid of.
They just want us to do what we’re told.
we named our new blend “Charbucks Blend”, we were running a large risk.
We were associating our own product with the perception of charred beans.
However, we felt we had to be as honest with customers as possible.
It seemed to us that a clear sense of humor would be communicated, and
would overcome the risk.
from customers during the past four years has overwhelmingly confirmed that the
sense of humor strategy worked. Every
customer who has commented to us about Charbucks Blend has appreciated the
humorous aspect of the name. Of
even more significance, not one single customer has ever called us and
complained about buying a package of Charbucks Blend by mistake. We have to conclude that our “in your face labeling” has
worked precisely as intended.
does not share our views on this matter.