In a confusing development, the everyday mainstream coffee company Folgers is introducing a new higher-quality coffee it calls 1850. This, from folks who have consistently stated that the “best part of waking up is Folgers in your cup.” So is this better?
Historically, inexpensive, grocery store coffee was made mainly from less costly Robusta beans and pulverized after roasting. Then Pete’s and Starbucks came along, and Americans learned about the finer Aribica bean and the more careful slow roasting and fresh grinding that turned an 80 cent cuppa into a $4 extravaganza — and, let’s face it, a platform onto which we could mound all manor of milk and sugar.
Now Folgers wants to get in on the upscale action. But it’s generally easier to move downscale, to do the cheaper knock-off than to try to convince folks that your bargain brand can make diamonds out of coal. But even that can have unattractive repercussions. Gap birthed Old Navy at a lower price point that has been very successful on its own. They’ve been fighting defections from the papa brand ever since.
It’s what happens when you knock yourself off. You compete with yourself, and often, you lose.
And lowering the price, and thus the perceived value of what you’re selling, can have calamitous repercussions. I’m reminded of the popular Manhattan pre-’87-crash hot spot JAMS, where a newly discovered “free range chicken” off the grill (with fries) went for something like $39.50. When the markets tanked, it suddenly reappeared at $18.95. Really upset people. Made them feel they’d been had by their waiter, not just their broker. The place closed.
But what about the other way? Anyone remember Saturn? That was the bargain car from GM. After some success, they tried to add more models at higher prices. Fail! Then there was the fairly hilarious effort by Walmart to go Fashion Forward with fine design. Almost nobody remembers that. They took out full-page ads in Vogue. Walmart! What’s wrong with that picture? Everything.
Growing up, my parents bought whatever name-brand coffee was on sale — Maxwell House, MJB, Yuban … — and they said they were all “good to the last drop.” My father had the annoying habit of being able to drink a full cup of the end-of-day sludge my mother had produced in our Mr. Coffee and going right to bed. (If I have a decaf after 3 p.m., I’m up ’til Thursday.) He always liked the jingles that went with each coffee brand but wasn’t particular about which went with what. He’d hum one while drinking the other. To my father, grocery store coffee came with a friendly little song.
And that’s the problem. If a brand has an actual identity, with lasting resonance, it’s foolhardy at best to fiddle with it. So many brands are screaming out so many clever positioning slogans that the overload becomes a foggy din and reference points lose their use. I can’t imagine why anyone would even bother to try a more expensive Folgers in a world with so many coffees to choose from. But that’s just me. I’ve been humming a tune all morning that goes, “Folgers tastes good, like a cigarette should. …”
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