Starbucks Blonde Roast: Change Isn’t as Bitter as You Think

Posted on 01/18/12 1 Comment

I have recently fallen in love with Starbucks newest coffee: Blonde Roast®. As a former Starbucks employee who worked at Store #8, I can hardly believe I just said that. Because of my history and overdeveloped interest in coffee, I am constantly aware of the steps the company is taking to remain viable in this incredible gourmet coffee beverage industry they are credited with creating. When I heard that Starbucks was releasing a completely new line of light-roast coffees, I was immediately spellbound.

The years of training we received as “Partners” at Starbucks was so thorough and was treated with such importance. It has always stuck with me. One thing we were taught was that Starbucks had perfected the art of roasting coffee. Starbucks had successfully popularized dark roast coffee by telling everyone it was the “Best way possible to enjoy coffee, and that the Starbucks Roast® was unrivaled and brought out the ultimate potential in the bean” (my paraphrase).

Yes, we were champions of the dark roast, spreading the good news of Starbucks’ incredible revelation with the world. What Starbucks eventually produced was a brilliant creation of their own niche market. This was accomplished by lots of positive reinforcement and by being very, very proud of the way they presented their product. All along the way, critics exclaimed: “Your coffee is burnt and bitter”. All along the way, we politely disagreed, educated the customer, and marched on. While many who did not initially like it “acquired a taste” for the Starbucks Roast, many more did not, and would march off to buy their coffee elsewhere.

For over forty years, Starbucks did just fine by ignoring their critics and staying true to their core values, systems, and beliefs. However, they did so by blatantly ignoring the hard facts about coffee all along the way. Coffee actually can taste more bitter when it is roasted darker. That doesn’t make it wrong. It is just the way it is. In the end, the dissenters who complained of the bitter taste were made to feel that their tastebuds were off while all the dark coffee lovers gloried in their agreement.

The drawback? It’s really hard to promote your preferences without devaluing the preferences of others. Starbucks made the ultimate choice to embrace their preference over principle and turn it into a bias.

Preference: we want everyone to like our coffee dark roasted the way we do.

Principle: People have different tastes and dark coffee tastes bitter.

Now, the giant green siren has done the unthinkable. She changed her message, her roasting philosophy, and strategy to satisfy the palettes of customers they have for years scared off, underestimated, and undervalued. So how do they attract customers they don’t have? The underlying hope, of course, is to get people who have embraced their dark roast doctrine for years to evangelize their friends who refuse to go to coffee with them and are getting their light roast coffee elsewhere. This is a tall order of a grande scale. (no pun intended)

Starbucks did this not by changing or abandoning their preferences that they have held to for decades, but by paying attention to the greater principles at work and taking into account the preferences of a wider market. Whether or not the company has done too little too late or has laid a blonde roasted egg from a marketing perspective is outside the scope of this analysis. What this story is highlighting is the importance of paying attention to the bigger and more obvious principles at work rather than letting preferences result in narrow-mindedness and ignorance. When preferences take precedence, the unfortunate result is ignorance of the greater principles.

While I am still wondering what took them so long to figure this out, I admire Starbucks for their bold move and new stance. By sharing their own personal, late-in-coming epiphany that: “some coffees taste better when roasted lighter”, they successfully negotiated a change of one of their unwritten core values. Now the coffee, not the roaster, is king. For the die-hard Starbucks traditionalist, the implications of this aren’t as bad as you think. This doesn’t mean we are all forced to abandon our preference in favor of someone else’s. (You can still get that same dark roast coffee any time you want.) It is, however, about allowing the preferences of others to peacefully co-exist in the same space as yours.

By highlighting and celebrating the preferences of others we are, in fact paying more attention to and embracing the greater principles. The other crazy thing that might happen is you might try the “Blonde Roast” and make a new friend. Maybe you’ll hate it, who knows? But hate it or love it, you will be less bitter.

-Ryan McCullough

One Comment

  1. Bob Juarez says:
    Wednesday, January 18, 2012 at 8:19pm

    Roasting coffee is a complex process. The following link has a really in depth view on coffee bitterness.


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