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Francesca Bacardi/MEDILL

Starbucks Corp. launched its blonde roast last year.

Starbucks betting on 'blonde'

by Francesca Bacardi
Feb 19, 2013

Francesca Bacardi/MEDILL

Certain Chicagoans buy Starbucks' blonde roast because they prefer the lighter brew.

There are three types of coffee drinkers: coffee geeks, people looking for a caffeine fix and Starbucks aficionados. The latter category has a catch, though: Most Starbucks regulars have a taste for darker roasts, the company’s main blend.

Those who find Starbucks’ darker roasts bitter dubbed it “charbucks” and have turned to Dunkin’ Donuts and other competitors for a lighter coffee.

Not letting the nickname stand in its way, the Seattle-based company launched its blonde roast last year with a two-fold mission: respond to all of the consumers who were seeking a lighter roast and expand market share.

This year Starbucks launched a cross-channel campaign to promote its blonde roast. The new roast’s coffee has helped boost grocery and Starbucks retail sales, driving growth across all channels in the nearly $1 billion light roast coffee segment, according to a press release. The most recent quarter saw 7 percent year-over-year sales growth in the Americas and 11 percent growth in the China/Asia Pacific region.

A Starbucks spokeswoman said that the blonde roast was, “performing well and is a popular brewed coffee option.”

But at least one employee disagrees.

“Generally speaking sales have been underwhelming.” said Michael, a shift supervisor at a Starbucks. “I haven’t noticed an enormous change since we started pushing it.”

His Starbucks location met its sales goals for the blonde roast, but those goals were “modest” compared to the other flavors, he said, adding that customers have been overheard  complaining that the new brew’s taste is still bitter.

In addition to the blonde roast, Starbucks also created “vanilla blonde” – vanilla syrup pumped into a customer’s blonde roast – to allow customers a more customizable experience.

A company that was steeped in dark roasts, Starbucks has slowly transitioned over time. It first released its medium blend, Pike Place, in spring 2008 and has now spanned the spectrum.

Chicago resident David Harrison used to drink Starbucks’ Pike Place but switched to the blonde when it was released. “It’s less abrasive than the Pike,” Harrison said. “I just prefer something that’s softer and more mild.”

But Starbucks aficionado John O’Donnell also tried the lighter blend and didn’t like the taste. “I go to Starbucks for bolder, more unique coffees,” O’Donnell said.

By catering to consumers’ preferences, Starbucks has been successful in attracting new customers.

The new campaign enticed Chicago resident Lauren Wright, who saw a TV commercial a month ago and decided to try it. Wright used to only buy her coffee at Au Bon Pain Co., which also offers lighter blends.

“I like (the blonde roast) because it doesn’t have that same bite that the others do,” Wright said.

Now she splits her coffee orders between Starbucks and Au Bon Pain.