Seattle’s Best Coffee reached its distribution goal this week. The Starbucks-owned premium brand is now available at 30,000 venues nationwide, including Subway Restaurants, AMC Theatres, Alaska Airlines and Royal Caribbean cruises. The milestone is part of Starbucks’ vision to grow and revitalize the 40-year-old brand by expanding it to both national and international markets. Under the leadership of Seattle’s Best president Michelle Gass, the brand has been growing in popularity with consumers outside the West Coast. While 30,000 is a significant number (a ten-fold increase from the number of venues Seattle’s Best had in March), Gass has her sights set on as many as “100,000 or more” venues, she said. The former Procter & Gamble alum, who helped launch Via and grow Starbucks’ Frappuccino brand into a billion-dollar business, recently chatted with Brandweek about her vision for Seattle’s Best.
Brandweek: Now that Seattle’s Best has hit the 30,000-point distribution mark, what’s next?
Michelle Gass: We are extremely pleased with how our efforts have played out over the last year. The milestone we set earlier this year—to increase distribution by ten-fold to 30,000—we have checked the box on that. We have achieved that milestone and it is the beginning of great momentum that we see into the future with all of our plans. The 30,000 milestone [equates to] 30,000 points where [consumers] can get a cup of fresh coffee, through existing partnerships with [companies] like Alaska Airlines and Royal Caribbean, and new partners, like Subway and AMC Theatres, to name a few. [Of course,] we’ve just begun and we’re setting our sight on more [points of distribution].
BW: Has consumer perception of the brand changed? Or it is still a work in progress?
MG: We’re still in the very early [stages], but in the weeks and months to come, that is when our brand story will be unfolding. So, a few examples of how we tell our story in all the ways that our customers touch our brand: In our stores and cafes, our cups, napkins, stoppers and paper goods—those will be ways for us to express this new brand voice of fun, optimism and simplicity. [Starting January] on our cups, for example, we’ll have our signature red [brand] color, and the back will be a canvas where we’ll bring our voice to the consumer, [through sayings like]: “half full.” We’re talking in that [tone] of optimism and sharing our voice with consumers, and we’re doing it with a wink and a smile.
BW: And how else?
MG: [Another way] is through traditional and untraditional marketing. Our 1000 Cups platform [a 10-day trip to document people’s coffee experiences while sharing a cup of coffee with them] is a great example of our new voice coming to life. [After all], it’s not just what you tell [consumers.] It’s also the behavior through which you express yourself. To me, the 1000 Cups example [highlights] both our business and our brand strategy, which is to bring bright spots and simple moments of joy and pleasure through coffee to people around the world. That is representative of where our brand came from, and we have to create new assets for this brand. It’s a 40-year-old company, but it’s, in many ways, a new brand. And so, we have to figure out how we are going to show up in this world. (Creature is the agency behind the 1000 Cups campaign.)
BW: Where will these photos be showing up?
MG: We will create an asset base of great photography that will show up in our marketing, in our cafes, on our Website and we also have plans to capture the journey in a documentary. And this, once again, is only one piece of how we will show up in the world.
BW: Premium coffee or not, it’s a downturn and coffee is one of those purchases that consumers can cut back on. So, what’s your outlook for the business this year?
MG: What we are seeing with our current and prospective customers is that they do selectively trade up with things that are of high value in their lives, and coffee is one of those. Everyone is concerned with what is happening in the economy right now. But our response is to ensure that customers see the value in our coffee, and the coffee itself is a high-quality, great tasting product. We are paying attention to all that is going on in the economy right now, but our indications show that we’ll be fine.
[And], in spite of the economy, there has been an increase in premium coffee. So, there is a lot of great conversation about great coffee, and great premium coffee in the marketplace. The overall awareness of premium coffee is a good thing. And we want to be part of that growth.
BW: Top two items on your to-do list now?
MG: The top two are building awareness of this brand and building affinity, or meaning, behind it. In terms of awareness, we are very pleased with what we’ve seen thus far. We are seeing awareness growing and that needs to continue as our focus. For many years, Seattle’s Best has been viewed as a regional, West Coast brand. We’ve now achieved broad national distribution, and have the opportunity to fully solidify ourselves as a national and ultimately, global, brand. We’ve got to get on consumers’ radar. And secondly, right along with that, we have to have this brand meaning something in people’s lives. In this case, we want to be known for our great, smooth, approachable coffee, which is what we’ve been known for 40 years, but we have to tell that story. It’s an emotional connection built on higher ground, or what we like to call a bright spot, standing for values like fun, optimism and simplicity.