The beans of war

There’s a coffee war going on.

Caribou Coffee, a Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, company, has been sneaking around Minnesota for the past few years, subtly dropping stores in and around various metro areas. Because they’re different – because they’re not the same damned Starbucks stores we see on ever corner, sometimes right across the street from each other (thank you Lewis Black) — they’re easy to spot. They’re branching out now. We got our first Caribou just a few months ago. And I love it.

I’m new to this whole coffee thing, personally. I always worked nights, and never really developed the taste for it. Which was weird because my wife, Kerrie, was a connoisseur. A coffee snob. No Folgers or Maxwell House, thank you very much – only the best of fresh roasted Sumatra beans would do the trick.

Now I’ve caught the bug. And Caribou is my coffee of choice. Though that doesn’t stop me from partaking in free Starbucks coffee, or stopping by Starbucks on my way to work (it’s the closest non-gas station coffee on my way.)

I’m rambling about my coffee preferences for a reason. Recently, Starbucks sent an e-mail coupon for free coffee to employees in the southeast. The coupon came with instructions to pass it on to friends and family.

Naturally, the coupon was e-mailed all over the place. It had a month long expiration date, and was being redeemed by a much larger amount of people than first expected. A few days later, Starbucks reneged on their offer, posting this message in stores: “Unfortunately, it has been redistributed beyond the original intent and modified beyond Starbucks control. Effective immediately, this offer will no longer be valid at any Starbucks locations.”

Or, as Danny at Beyond Madison Avenue translated it: “Oops! This is costing us more than we want to spend!”

Well, duh. If you put an Internet coupon out, it’s going to spread. It’s going to be copied and pasted and used throughout the entire country. If you didn’t want this to happen, why send out an Internet coupon?

This floated around the Internet for a few days, bouncing from one marketing blogger to another. No one had good things to say. Come to think of it, neither did the public. Seth Godin offered some obvious suggestions:

Rule #1: don’t expect that anything on the Internet won’t get out of hand. If you don’t want it to get out of hand, it probably will.

Rule #2: if something gets out of hand, and you made a promise, better figure out a way to keep it. This sign is an ineffective response. If it were my call, I’d take advantage of the “one coupon per customer” presumption and put a little tick on the buyer’s driver’s license or similar… just enough to slow down the particularly egregious scammers (who in this case aren’t really scammers. Starbucks asked for it).

Everything was beginning to die down, until Caribou stepped in. Now, Caribou is doing what Starbucks wouldn’t – they’re honoring these coupons.

Brilliant. You get customers that weren’t going to come to Caribou anyway. You get thousands of chances to switch someone’s preferred brands. And I’d be willing to guess that at least 10% of the customers who come in are going to consciously say to themselves, “boy, this coffee isn’t burned and toasted – it’s just right, brewed perfectly and served with a smile.”

Starbucks messed up. Caribou is picking up the pieces. The advantage goes to the company that’s treating its customers — and the customers of the competitor — with the right amount of civility. If Starbucks is going to go back on its promise, why wouldn’t Caribou turn around and point it out, going the extra step in honoring their competitors coupons?

I love Caribou’s “question of the day.” I love their fireplaces, their comfy chairs, and their real caramel. I love the fact that I get a Pixies song stuck in my head whenever I go in. And now, this? Yes — yet another reason I like Caribou.

How’s that for an all out strike in the coffee war?

This was lovingly handwritten on September 6th, 2006