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Forget The Shark, Starbucks Jumps The Whale

Starbucks Coffee Company
on Monday the 17th of May in the year 2010
has “jumped the whale.”

Starbucks announced today they will start offering Starbucks Natural Fusions, flavored coffee beans in grocery stores.

Starbucks Natural Fusions

For those of you who remember when Starbucks was more about quality than quantity, flavored beans were considered the devil. If coffee was plotted on a Monopoly game board. Starbucks was “Boardwalk” and flavored coffee was “Mediterranean Avenue.”

Monopoly Board

Starbucks roasts its coffee darker than most – thus the nicknames: Tarbucks or Charbucks. Starbucks did this to draw out the natural flavors in coffee. Great coffee doesn’t need additives for great flavor, it requires the right beans roasted for the right amount of time. Great wineries don’t add apricot, honey, or oak flavoring to their wines; they grow, blend, and age grapes in a manner to draw out those flavors.

Starbucks is dumbing down their coffee to make money in the flavored coffee category. Just as they dumbed down their coffee to enter the instant coffee market with their VIA product.

It doesn’t matter if you’re making THE premium quality product. You could make the best quality, gourmet, all-natural, organic, fried pork rinds in the world… But, you’re still selling fried pork rinds.

To drive sales, Starbucks should focus on the “specialty retailer” part of their business and improve the quality and experience in their stores. Starbucks used to be about providing a delightful in-store experience; hand-crafted beverages, community, quality.

Starbucks wants to become consumer product conglomerate – with focus on getting their products in as many channels as possible.

Last week I wrote about Seattle’s Best Coffee, Starbucks little sister brand, and despite a new logo – have no real news to share. Flavored beans and instant coffee are a perfect fit for the Seattle’s Best brand, and would be quite newsworthy for the brand. Let Seattle’s Best offer the gimmicky coffee, keep Starbucks premium.

(I know what you’re thinking… Isn’t a dark cherry mocha Frappuccino a gimmicky coffee? Yes, it is. And the topic for another post! That’s how Starbucks is trying to be more like Dairy Queen than the king of coffee.)

There is a decision-filter product managers and marketers often forget when there is an opportunity to make more money.

“Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”

Just because Starbucks found a way to make a higher-quality flavored coffee, doesn’t mean they should.

The Phrase: Jumping The Shark (and Jumping The Whale)

Jon Hein, the guy who coined the phrase, says that jumping the shark is the “defining moment when you know that your favorite television program has reached its peak. That instant that you know from now on… its all downhill… From that moment on, the program will simply never be the same.”

Fonzie Jumps The Shark

The phrase originated from a climactic scene in American sitcom Happy Days in September 1977. In this story, the central characters visit Los Angeles, where Fonzie (Henry Winkler), wearing swim trunks and his trademark leather jacket, jumps over a confined shark on water skis, answering a challenge to demonstrate his bravery. (Source: Wikipedia)

*Here, with Starbucks dismissing one of it’s founding quality principles, a shark isn’t large enough marine life. Jump the whale is the scale. Particularly, for a coffee company named after a character from the book Moby Dick. In the novel, Starbuck was the ‘coffee-loving’ first mate.

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  1. barry
    barryMay 17,10

    Dumming down the coffee. I have only gone to a Starbucks two or three times in my life. Why would I want to buy their coffee in a grocery store?
    I would not want to.
    I just wonder why companies just can’t be happy doing what they do best and not worry about always having a growth curve. Maybe it’s the tech company mentality. Needs to be always something new.
    oh well……

    • Paul
      PaulMay 17,10

      Barry – thanks for taking the time to comment. Starbucks decided to sell whole bean coffee in grocery stores because they realized people weren’t willing to make a special trip to a Starbucks location for their coffee. But, the trade off… is Starbucks on the grocery shelf blends in with the myriad of other coffee choices as well.

  2. Jay Ehret
    Jay EhretMay 17,10

    Starbucks can’t be happy doing what it’s doing because it has a stock price. And so it must grow…and grow…and grow. I suspect that someday there will be a line of Starbucks flavored pizza, Starbucks branded coffee bean mulch, Starbucks body spray, and even Starbucks shark repellent. Or wait, will the shark repellent be a Seattle’s Best product?

    When Howard Schultz returned as CEO of Starbucks a couple of years ago he promised a “laser-focus on the customer experience.” I actually kind-of believed him. What I didn’t realize was that it would be the experience of a spectator watching the prostitution and painful destruction of one of America’s great brands.

    • Paul
      PaulMay 17,10

      Jay – thank you for commenting. Some time ago I suggested the best thing Starbucks could do was to go private – but itself back – so it could have better control. I too am disappointed that that customer focus (at least from what a customer wants) isn’t there. Thanks for taking the time to leave your thoughts.

  3. Lourdes
    LourdesMay 17,10

    For the record, Starbuck never said anything in Moby Dick about loving coffee – that’s an assumption based on the fact that his character was a teetotaler. That idea of the “coffee-loving first mate” has always annoyed me.

    • Paul
      PaulMay 17,10

      Lourdes – I never knew that about Starbuck. Was it Howard Schultz’s book Pour Your Heart Into It that first mentions Starbuck as a coffee lover? I’ll have to do some research! Thanks for taking the time to join in the conversation!

  4. Cindy
    CindyMay 17,10

    Great post, Paul! And I couldn’t agree more. When I read “flavored coffee” and “Starbucks” in the same sentence I nearly fell out of my chair. Starbucks vowed NEVER to flavor its coffee. Guess money is a strong motivator. We Starbucks old-timers may not understand the new direction.

    I asked whether Starbucks is losing its “coffee integrity” in a post I wrote for

  5. sarah
    sarahMay 17,10

    paul, you hit it right on the nails head on this story and the one about SBC. appaprently the VP, Michelle Gaas spent millions on this new SBC thing – yikes!
    you are way too smart to ever have worked for starbucks!
    btw, did you know that this flavored coffee is manufactured at the 3rd party manaufacturer in Everett, WA?


  6. Fred H Schlegel
    Fred H SchlegelMay 18,10

    Funny how brand managers doing this never realize they are making room at the top for a new premium brand to step in. Maybe there is no choice as other avenues of growth dry up, but to me it indicates the beginning of the end of any pricing premium they can maintain.
    .-= Fred H Schlegel’s last blog… "How Do You Value Relationships? How Does Facebook?" =-.

  7. Jesaka
    JesakaMay 18,10

    Excellent post, Paul, and you nailed it with the “jumping the whale” reference. I remember when Starbucks bought Seattle’s Best Coffee. As we were writing the Q&As for partners, we specifically addressed the question about would Starbucks now be selling flavored coffee. The answer: no, it was appropriate to the Seattle’s Best Coffee customer.

    Call it “fusions,” it’s still flavored coffee. When I read about it in AdAge yesterday, I couldn’t believe it. The quote there was about how Starbucks customers said they would buy flavored coffee from Starbucks if it was available. So, what’s next?

    I don’t want to know the answer to that.
    .-= Jesaka’s last blog… "Cognitive Connection, May 14: It’s the Third Annual Writers Worth Day" =-.

  8. Melody
    MelodyMay 23,10

    Hi Sarah – I want to ask you about your comment … What do you mean by the coffee is made by 3rd party manufacturer in Everett? Are you saying someone else has a contract to produce the product, or do you mean that someone else developed it?

    As to the blog post, I’ve been avoiding writing/talking much about Starbucks Fusions until I have the chance to try it myself. Yes, a part of me is very disappointed. I guess it means that “never” doesn’t really mean never. But the fundamental changes that got Starbucks where they are now started many years ago.

    Drastic change of corporate identity and culture, at least from I can tell, rarely happens in a coup de etat and regime change with an overnight transformation, but rather in the inch by inch decisions that erode into the abutments of the business. A long time ago, warming ovens came to Starbucks, Vivannos, whole bean menus came down … small changes that might have been praised for each individual change, but at someone point, someone must’ve looked up and said, “How did we get so many miles and miles away from where we came from?”.
    .-= Melody’s last blog… "Yes, Virginia, there is a Starbucks Decaf Casi Cielo" =-.

  9. Ted
    TedAugust 8,11

    As “far back” as that reference (“jump the shark”) might seem to many folks, the phrase “jump the whale” pre-dates it by 2-decades or more, and is heard in the 1962 movie “Advise and Consent”.

    I’m trying to find out what it actually means (meant).

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