New product assessment of Starbucks Via: 5 things to consider when launching a new product

Over the past couple of days, there has been a lot of buzz surrounding the new product launch from Starbucks known as Via Ready Brew (instant coffee).  Much of the buzz is being generated by Starbucks itself, but there is also a lot of chatter coming from people (customers, analysts, competitors, marketers, etc.), and many of them are questioning Starbuck’s rationale for launching the product.

Since I am a passionate brand supporter and former Starbucks marketing manager, I thought that this well loved brand and highly publicized launch would be a great example to illustrate some key questions marketers should consider when they are thinking about a new product introduction.  Below is my checklist of questions that any marketer can use when considering a new product or service launch, applied to Starbucks Via.

New product idea assessment checklist

  1. Does the product meet an unmet need? In my experience with product launches, this is the most fundamental question to consider.  New products that address and fulfill an otherwise unmet need for their target customer have a great chance of bringing more customers into the category and revolutionizing the category’s segmentation.  In Starbucks’ case, it claims that Via is meeting two needs:  portability & value.  I have to admit I am not sure that both of these really are significant unmet needs of their customer targets.  I am assuming that Starbucks has two target customers for this product:  existing Starbucks customers and ‘instant’ coffee drinkers.   With that in mind, from my previous experience working in the coffee category, I don’t recall ‘portability’ of coffee being something with which customers struggled (in fact they generally seemed to think Starbucks had become ubiquitous).  As for value, there probably is a need for a more ‘value priced’ coffee that is still high quality. My biggest concern with this, however, is that Via costs about $1 per serving.  This still seems a bit pricey for a cup of coffee to be considered a real value offering, especially among current instant coffee drinkers.
  2. Is the unmet need large enough to sustain the new product? Sometimes, even when a product does a great job of meeting an unmet need, the market size of the need is too small to really pursue.  At Campbell Soup, we used to joke that if we were considering a product launch that would perfectly meet the needs of campers, then the product shouldn’t move forward (because the market was too small to support the investment that a company the size of Campbell would make to launch the product).  With that in mind, I couldn’t help but cringe when I read that Starbucks was selling Via in REI.  Aside from that, my other concern for Starbucks is the size of the need for premium but good value instant coffee.  I am sure there are people who would really like this, but I am concerned about how many of them are out there who will become sustained customers.
  3. How differentiated is the new product from alternatives? For many unmet needs, a lot of customers find alternatives or ‘work arounds’ to try to fulfill what they are lacking.  A new product that is truly differentiated from and performs better than these alternatives has a tremendous chance for success.  This is one of the areas where Via is strong.  It is truly differentiated from every other coffee ‘solution’ out there.  It definitely provides a unique set of benefits.
  4. How much incremental sales will the new product generate? This question is always a hard one to estimate, and it often is the one that stops new products from getting to market.  New products can often make existing products obsolete, or at least considerably cannibalize existing sales if the new products do not appeal to a wider set of customers overall.  This is the issue I am most concerned about for Via.  Because it is a good value alternative to Starbucks coffee, and because it is being sold to customers who have already made the decision to go into a Starbucks store, it could significantly cannibalize the sales of both the beans and the beverages in the store.  To try to counteract this, I would suggest that Starbucks not target its existing customer base by selling Via in its store, but focus more on appealing to the instant coffee drinkers and focus distribution only in grocery stores and other retail venues where Via will not compete ‘head to head’ with Starbucks’ existing products.
  5. Do the product’s benefits fit with the core essence of the brand? This question is critical to ensure that the product continues to be brand building with its customers.  If the new product doesn’t fit with the brand’s core essence (what the brand ultimately stands for), this will hurt both the new product and the existing brand by confusing (or perhaps even disappointing) customers.  In Starbucks’ case, the core essence is about providing an excellent coffee experience.  Via’s benefits fit with this core essence, and so the launch of Via makes sense from this standpoint.

Based on this quick assessment of Starbucks Via against these questions, it appears that the new product has some key strengths, but its prospects aren’t entirely clear.  There are a few things that Starbucks might consider changing to increase its chances of success such as pricing the product at an even greater value to really make the benefit more meaningful and selling the product only in grocery and other retail channels (not its own stores).  Of course, the launch of successful new products is as much an art as it is a science, and so despite some weaknesses, the product may be a home run.

Hopefully these questions spark some thoughts for those of you who are currently considering new product ideas.  This list isn’t exhaustive, but it gives some good  ones to consider.   Are there others you might also add to this list?  Let me know and also how Starbucks Via would stack up against them.

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