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Blonde Ambition is Blind Ambition

The story that brought Howard Schultz to Starbucks is worthy of a Hollywood script.

It’s the story of an east coast salesman, Howard, traveling to the west coast to meet with a small company who is his biggest buyer of a coffee brewer. Howard becomes so enamored with the passion, authenticity, and flavor of the small company that he convinces the three founders to hire him. And the rest of the story is history as if it was written in Hollywood.

In his book, POUR YOUR HEART INTO IT, Howard retells the fateful story of his first sip of Starbucks coffee.

“I took a small, tentative sip. Whoa. I threw my head back, and my eyes shot wide open. Even from a single sip. I could tell it was stronger than any coffee I had ever tasted. . . . By the third sip, I was hooked. I felt I had discovered a whole new continent. By comparison, I realized the coffee I had been drinking was swill.”

Clearly, Howard was attracted to the unique, strong dark-roasted flavor of Starbucks coffee. The flavor was unlike anything Howard had ever tasted in a cup of coffee. It was love at first sip.

Fast forward to present day where Starbucks announced it’s introducing a very light roast, Starbucks Blonde, with a flavor profile similar to brewed coffee served at McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts.

Now, rewind to yesteryear where Howard had his first sip of Starbucks coffee. Suppose he was given the lightly roasted Willow Blend as his introduction to Starbucks. Would his reaction be the same? Would he throw his head back in disbelief of what coffee could taste like? Would he fall in love with Starbucks coffee?

The marketer in me says Howard wouldn’t react the same.

It’s unlikely for someone to fall in love with a product that purposely looks, smells, and tastes similar to what is widely available elsewhere. Being too similar doesn’t elicit love.

Being different. Being unique. Being bold. Being too dissimilar does elicit love.

Not everyone will love a product that is dissimilar. However, virtually no one will love a product that is too similar to what everyone else offers.


  • Stæven says:

    I was initially expecting a blonde joke–thanks for surprising me!

    Its often the things that initially attract us to brands that are the qualities that get played around with over time–to tame down the tribes (or create less verbal tribes) and boost brand equity.

    Instead they get to BOO and not the complete BOOST.

    Prell used to be green. Then they made blue. McDonalds made McPizza and McSpaghetti. And starbucks aimed to be the foremost purveyor of books and CD’s for a stint. What was that about?

    Being blind.

  • johnmoore says:

    Staeven … when I first got wind of this a few months ago I immediately thought it was a “dumb blonde” move. Too easy of a blonde joke coming from someone who considers himself a “dirty blonde.”

  • Tim K says:

    Where to start…I get that Howard is simply incapable of stopping, of having enough…and I even get that satifying customers is generally a laudable pursuit…but good grief. How can being completely untethered to truthfulness or principle be at all satisfying? I guess it’s cool to take something great and turn it into something huge, but in what way is Starbucks any different than Jack in the Box? Are they still fooling people, do you think? Or does it matter anymore?

  • denise r says:

    I am hugely disappointed in Sbux latest move…the blonde roasts. As I have said elsewhere, I do believe Sbux “sold its soul”. saddened.

  • johnmoore says:

    Denise … this decision to embrace a light roast is indeed a fundamental shift for SBUX. It’s counter the beliefs the company was founded upon and has lived out. I agree with you, this is sad.

    As a former SBUX barista and longtime SBUX marketer, I was taught (or brainwashed) to believe coffee roasted just after the second pop brought out the most developed flavors in the coffee bean. Starbucks built its reputation on bold, full flavored, dark roasted coffee.

    Embracing light roasted coffee is a fundamental shift for the company. We’ll see if the less unique taste profile of these Blonde coffees creates the same customer devotion as the Starbucks Roast created.

  • CABarista says:

    I don’t know that I agree with you. I’m still not sure how I feel about the whole deal, I’ll let everyone know once I’ve tasted it. But judging before tasting, well, I think you know what they say about giving an opinion before actually seeing, tasting ect.
    Starbucks makes good coffee. Period. Their lighter roasts, their bolder roasts. I don’t expect this to be any different. It will be light, but it will be good. It’s a smart move to pull in all those who think our blends are too dark. They will produce this and market it and many will become loyal who had never tried it before. Smart. I have people make comments about how dark our roasts are daily.

  • johnmoore says:

    CABarista … my perspective tells me what helped to make SBUX special was SBUX had a strong point of view about what coffee should taste like. The SBUX point of view about coffee as been dark roasted coffee produced more flavorful coffee. The company built its reputation on brewing darker, more flavorful coffee. You say “Starbucks” and bold tasting coffee comes to mind for most people. To change that, changes EVERYTHING.


    When I was a Barista in 1994, customers also made the same comment … that SBUX coffee is “too dark and too bitter.” Some 55+million people visit Starbucks every week in 2011. SBUX must be doing something right, right?

    My point with this post is… SBUX built its point of difference and reputation on bold, dark roasted coffee. To change that point of difference and reputation changes EVERYTHING.

    Time will tell if the Blonde roasted coffee lineup from SBUX connects with people.

  • CABarista says:

    Starbucks coffee is in the way they do it, not just the depth of roast. I do understand what you mean, but I disagree.

  • johnmoore says:

    CABarista … as you know, Starbucks Roast (R) is a registered trademark of SBUX. I don’t know what training materials say today but training materials from back in the day eloquently praised the merits of roasting coffee to just after the second pop. Going just beyond the second pop results in a “full city” roast which is the roast depth SBUX has called the Starbucks Roast(R).

    As I mentioned in my comments, embracing a lighter roast is a fundamental shift for SBUX.

    I cracked open POUR YOUR HEART INTO IT and found this story to be interesting. On pg. 34 Howard, who was still in the process of falling in love with SBUX at that time, asks original Starbucks co-founder Jerry Baldwin a question, “Tell me about the roast. Why is it so important to roast it dark?” Jerry responds saying the dark roast is what differentiated Starbucks.

    Starbucks = dark roast. It’s ingrained into the design of the business, the coffee, and the brand. To see Starbucks undifferentiate itself by embracing a very light roast profile greatly bothers this former Starbucks partner.

  • EndlesslyRestless says:

    Starbucks wasn’t even the best coffee available on the High Street before this change! I want my coffee to be a pleasurable, intense experience – so on this occasion I AM prepared to judge before tasting!

  • April says:

    Starbucks still managed to stand by the second pop standard. All our training materials
    state that it is still roasted to the second pop. What I find interesting is that light roast coffees tend to be bright or sharp (acidic) and somehow they have roasted these to have a smooth finish. Very smooth at that. They are not flavorless just have a light clean body. I prefer my coffee thick and rich, I want it to linger and hold its own against whatever I eat with it. That being said, I enjoyed the Veranda far more than I enjoy Dunkin Donuts. The body is similar, but the flavor is not.

  • johnmoore says:

    April … then the real story here is the roasting technique SBUX uses to get a light roast coffee to the second pop. That’s seemingly impossible unless SBUX has a discovered something new in how to roast coffee for 11-minutes plus to reach the second pop without the beans becoming dark and oily.