Starbucks Goes All Out in Via Instant Coffee Launch

Last Updated Sep 29, 2009 12:00 PM EDT

Today is the national launch of Via instant coffee, and Starbucks is throwing itself into promoting the new product. Via first appeared in Chicago, Seattle and London stores several months ago, but now the coffee is making its debut across the U.S. and Canada.

The official pitch is that Via is comparable to fresh-brewed coffee -- in fact, it's supposedly so superior it should hardly be considered as being in the same product category with existing instant coffee brands. As CEO Howard Schultz put it, Via will "transform the coffee industry."

Starbucks has spent more on promoting Via than on any other product in its history. The company has bought television ads and created a mini web series, and it's sponsoring taste tests across the country in an effort to prove that customers will be unable to distinguish between Via and Starbucks regular coffee.

Starbucks needs Via to take off; the economy hasn't been nice to Starbucks lately and, though neither company will openly admit it, McDonald's has become a direct rival with the rise of McCafe and its bargain-priced lattes.

But Via could be a tough sell. Starbucks has to persuade people not only to drink instant coffee, which is typically seen as an inferior good, but to pay more than they would for other instant brands. Then again, Starbucks has already raised the bar for coffee quality in America; it's not out of the question that it could do the same for instant coffee.

And though Schultz declined to give details on how well Via performed in its three test markets, he did say it "exceeded expectations."

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