Remember “instant coffee”? That crystallized, dirt-like substance reserved for camping and gramma’s cupboard?

How about Folgers commercials with Juan Valdez and his bean-totin’ donkey?

Hardly memories that bring on coffee cravings, but Starbucks new VIA brand is changing all that with portable packets of jolt-worthy joe.

Named VIA – the Italian word for “road” suggesting you can take it with you wherever you go – VIA hit the tarmac with a marketing wave only Starbucks could drive.  From inbox to mailbox, VIA was everywhere but like other coffee-lovers, I raised a skeptical eyebrow at Starbucks and “instant coffee” being in the same sentence let alone coffee counter.

And then I tried it.

I took some with me on a trip thinking it had to at least be an improvement on those nasty filter bags at the hotel.  Within 10 seconds of rip, pour and stir, I was surprised.  It was good!  Thin like an Americano but big on flavor… robust even.

Marketing wise, Starbucks is breathing texture and dimension into instant coffee with tactile almost sexy advertising campaigns.

Check out this video on their new line of flavoured VIA.  Makes you want to scratch n’sniff the screen…

Let’s back up…I was an early adopter of Starbucks when they opened their first store outside Seattle in Vancouver, BC.  It was (yikes) 1987, I had recently moved to the city, was doing the daily transit commute downtown and was suddenly struck by the intoxicating aroma of a different kind of coffee that was wafting through the sea bus station.  It was coming from the new little coffee shop with the crazy mermaid logo.

It lured me in, and from product to in-store experience, they had me at “tall, dark and barista.”

I’ve been a super-fan ever since but what fascinates me is Starbucks has spent almost 40 years building a brand culture around previously-pedestrian coffee with products that evoke emotion and a community of comfort around sipping from their signature cup.  In the process, Starbucks has cultivated a habit around “small indulgence” that has an entire generation adding coffee as a line-item on monthly household budgets.

Folgers may have thought they had the instant coffee market locked-down, but from seductive sell to satisfying taste, Starbucks VIA hasn’t just raised the bar, it’s reinvented the entire market segment.

(I suspect Juan’s donkey even has his tail between his legs.)


You could argue that Starbucks move to instant coffee dilutes the brand’s original mission to recreate the authentic, Italian coffee bar experience.

Or… 6000+ locations in 30 countries later… you could surmise that it’s a brand strategy around convenience just like Starbucks grocery store distribution and Starbucks drive-thrus.

And is it “dilution” when Starbucks brand promise around quality, sustainability and community remains consistent–just the delivery is different?