Starbucks’ VIA is a dumb idea. Right?

In a desperate panic to boost incremental growth, Starbucks has introduced – incredibly – an instant coffee: VIA. It’s an obvious and rather pathetic betrayal of all Starbucks stands for: cool coffee-house atmosphere, customized coffee creations, a “third place” for people to go besides home and work.

Actually, no. This kind of analysis overlooks some elements that are essential to the Starbucks brand.

Considering this is an instant product we are talking about – and most people would expect VIA to taste terrible – ironically absent from the arguments of many observers is an acknowledgement that Starbucks is very much about great, strong-tasting coffee. Many observers of the brand ignore this component and choose to focus almost exclusively on the importance of Starbucks’ bohemian-inspired, coffee-house atmosphere. They do not apprehend that once you’re a Starbucks customer, it’s a major hardship to not have a bloody good cup of coffee at least once a day. That’s the problem VIA is intended to overcome: it’s packaged in single servings, and its messaging encourages one to take it on the road – on the train, camping or up to the cottage, for example.

But does it taste good enough? The early feedback is a clear “yes.” Check out the discussion board at Starbucks’ Facebook page, and on their Twitter page, and you’ll see what I mean. Or ask someone who has tried the product. A plurality of people are pleasantly surprised that VIA is actually pretty good. Many were unable to identify VIA in a head-to-head taste test with Starbucks’ Pike Place drip.

Along with ignoring the importance of great strong coffee to the Starbucks brand, observers also overlook the convenience element. While people are willing to wait several minutes for an espresso-based drink especially, speed of service is still integral to the in-store experience. VIA’s transportability and quick prep time aligns perfectly with the convenience element. In a similar way, that’s why I was not horrified, as so many pundits were, when Starbucks introduced drive-thrus.

The VIA launch is going so well that Starbucks will be rolling out a decaf version in November. Interbrand, which opposed the VIA idea and is still on the fence, further questions the wisdom of introducing decaf. They see VIA as a convenient system of caffeine delivery and in that context, say that decaf doesn’t make sense.

They miss the point. If Starbucks was just about caffeine, the brand would get out of the coffee business and just push pills. VIA is about convenient access to great taste, high-test or not.

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