January 22, 2011

A New Level

I've been on a particularly verbose kick lately, writing long pseudo-narratives that, while structured around coffee, are not particularly informative. I wanted to change that a little, or at least offer some variety, and so I set out to pretend I was something like legitimate media. That urge, and my own curiosity, led me to contact Seattle's Best Coffee, and ask if I might speak to someone about the new levels system of coffee, and perhaps other things as well.

Very quickly, I received a message in the affirmative, confirming that I could indeed speak with someone. That someone turned out to be Jenny McCabe, director, Communications and PR. Which is to say, she is far more important than anyone I expected to speak with.

But if I was a bit surprised, and perhaps also flattered -- I really don't consider myself to be anything like legitimate media -- those emotions took a back seat to excitement. I would get to ask questions of someone who, no doubt, could answer them; and who also has plenty of experience doing just that. So yes, I was excited.

But as I said, I am not quite a journalist. And as a decided amateur, I didn't have a voice recorder, or any such thing; so you won't be hearing the conversation in full. And no, I can't transcribe it here, either. It really is too bad, because I would very much like for everything Jenny said to be available to you. She did a wonderful job explaining everything, detailing it all as part of a cohesive identity, or perhaps a corporate narrative.

That said, I will try my best to pass along the key points, as well as some tidbits I found particularly interesting.

The levels system Seattle's Best Coffee now has stems from a desire to, in her words, "de-mystify premium coffee". That is, most Americans drink coffee, and most would purport to like it, on some level. And yet, most are also scared away by my crowd -- the borderline elitists, opining about rossettas and single origin Ethiopian beans. The goal was thus to make good coffee, but to make it simple to understand, and easier still to access.

And so what of the coffee quality? It is one thing to make it simple -- and 1 through 5 is pretty basic -- but something else entirely to make it good. That was, initially, my concern. I feared that there would be a lack of variety, lack of distinct flavor, and only differences in roast. As I've written before, that turned out not to be the case. Not even close, thankfully. In truth, I find the new blends more distinctly individual than the old, simple names or no. This, perhaps, owes to the blending and roasting philosophy. While the marketing is simple, the goal here is to achieve a consistent and quality flavor that is unique to each level of coffee. It encouraged me to hear that; and it encouraged me more that I could taste it myself.

But this all, as tends to be the case when discussing Starbucks corporation, is part of a larger picture. If Starbucks is serious coffee, Seattle's Best is being set up its sense of humor. Which is not to say, as indicated above, that the quality of the coffee is to be compromised. Rather, Starubucks is the Kant reading, skinny jeans wearing, shaggy hipster in the corner; or perhaps the Banana Republic clothed, hair quaffed pretty boy; Seattle's Best is not so self assured as all that, not so image conscious, and not so damn uptight. That is the goal, at least. And it is a goal that will certainly be pursued. Say this for Starbucks Co: It can craft and sell an image. Seattle's Best is getting its turn in the limelight now, getting to perform its routine, and see how the crowd responds.

There is more to be said here, and certainly more to be said in the future on this subject. But I'll leave that in the future, where it belongs.

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