Until now, Starbucks Corp. has been known for forcing visitors to learn a new language just to order a simple cup of coffee. Consumers have not had much say in this. They'll call a regular old large coffee a grande Pike Place, and a 20-year-old cashier a barista. It is the lingua java.
But Starbucks Canada has announced that – for the first time ever, globally – it is opening up one of its product names for consumers to decide.
The company is inviting Canadians to rename its Blonde roast . (The new name will replace Veranda in Canada, the blend that accounts for the vast majority of Blonde sales.) It's a marketing push for the new lighter coffee, which launched a year ago. Compared to other countries, Canada has seen stronger growth: within about eight months of launch, the blonde roast accounted for 12 per cent of brewed coffee sales here. As of January, it was closer to 20 per cent. Those promising signs are what led Starbucks Canada to open up the contest.
Normally, Starbucks names its coffees at head office in Seattle, and only "coffee masters" who have passed a certificate program at the company make that decision. Since the launch of the contest on Jan. 28, roughly 50,000 submissions have come in.
"We really try to build real and meaningful relationships with our tribe, with our community … it's a really personal thing," said Luisa Girotta, public affairs director at Starbucks Coffee Canada.
While a contest to name a product is nothing new, that concept of a more-personalized relationship with customers is becoming more crucial. Social media have handed consumers a tool to amplify their voices in a way brands did not grapple with years ago. Companies that give their buyers a sense of ownership over the brand do well in this new era.
"There has been a very clear increase in the last few years with brands engaging their user base to 'crowd source' product names or feature enhancements," said Matt Singley, chief executive officer of Los Angeles-based social media marketing firm Singley + Mackie, Inc. "The ease of communication between brands and consumers has made this a mainstream event."
Consider the news this week that Hasbro Inc. decided to introduce a cat play piece into its popular Monopoly board game, based on fan votes, phasing out the flatiron token. But the process can go even further, allowing customers to be involved in product development at its earliest stages.
On Super Bowl Sunday in Canada, Lay's chips aired an ad starring Martin Short, kicking off a contest asking people to come up with its newest chip flavour. Over 1,500 submissions came in within the hour. (Early flavour suggestions include poutine, Nova Scotia donair, butter chicken, and maple bacon.) Submissions continue until April 15, and in July four finalists will hit store shelves, and consumers will vote on which one stays.
The "Do Us a Flavour" contest actually began in the U.K. with the Walkers Crisps brand in 2008, and has been such a success that parent company PepsiCo Inc. has now run it in 15 countries. In 2011, Frito Lay Canada ran a contest asking people to vote on which Doritos flavour would be retired, and to write the ending of an ad announcing the result.
"It's very important for brands to have two-way conversations with consumers," said Susan Irving, director of marketing for core brands at PepsiCo Canada. "It's really giving consumers a voice, and a say in the brands they love."
Companies have recognized this in the past. In 1993, Crayola invited fans to submit their ideas for new colour names. (Retired names "Prussian Blue," which was struck down for not being Cold War-sensitive, and "Flesh," the racially insensitive precursor to peach, need not apply.) In total, 16 new colours were named by consumers, including "macaroni and cheese," "denim," and "mauvelous." In 2003, it repeated the exercise for its 100th anniversary, allowing people to vote four colours out of the box and name four new ones.
Even the "Do Us a Flavour" slogan is not new to Frito Lay's contest. In 2006, Ben & Jerry's asked consumers for their ideas for new ice cream flavours, using that slogan. The winner, " Puttin' on the Ritz ," combined Ritz crackers, caramel and chocolate in vanilla ice cream. (Its iconic Cherry Garcia flavour, released in 1987, was also suggested by a fan.)
But if they are not handled properly, these types of contests can also put a brand on the hot seat.
In 2009, Kraft Foods in Australia shipped 3 million jars of a new product; a variation on the salty yeast spread Vegemite that is a staple of many Australians' diets and even considered by some to be a part of the national identity. But the winning entry was a flop.
Kraft announced it had chosen "Vegemite iSnack 2.0," a name that was ridiculed as a rip-off of the well-known Apple Inc. brand prefix, and just plain terrible.
The problem came about because the marketers did not give consumers full control over the naming process.
"We asked people to vote on a name, and then we left the room and picked a name that wasn't the most popular, and that's where we lost the online consumer in particular," Simon Talbot, director of corporate affairs at Kraft Foods Australia, told The New York Times at the time.
The new contest yielded the name Cheesybite, which replaced iSnack 2.0 on the shelves once those first jars were sold.
Typically when a high-profile new product needs a moniker, there will be numerous meetings whittling down a list of ideas and examining them for meanings; connection to the larger company image; fit with the brand portfolio of products if there is one; possible legal and trademark issues; and emotional connection with consumers.
If done right, opening up the naming or the product development process can go a long way toward that crucial last element. With so many people plugged in through social media, this kind of crowd-sourced branding can be a cheaper way to conduct market research.
"While focus groups and global survey technology still play an important part in brand decision-making, they can be very expensive and time consuming," Mr. Singley said. "A well-worded tweet or Facebook post can yield some fantastic consumer insights, and it's usually much faster and less expensive."
ACCOUNTING FOR TASTE
Crowd sourcing its product names has been so successful for Frito Lay that "Do Us a Flavour" has become a global campaign since launching in the U.K. in 2008. Here are some past winning flavours from other markets:
India: Mastana Mango
South Africa: Walkie Talkie Chicken
Australia: Late Night Kebob
Britain: Chili & Chocolate; Cajun Squirrel
BRANDING THE BEAN
Starbucks is opening up the name of its Blonde coffee blend in Canada. Normally, when it brands coffees, the company looks for something meaningful. A few of its brands and the meanings behind them:
Veranda: One of two names for its two Blonde roast coffees, Veranda will be replaced in Canada by a consumer-chosen name. It was chosen to evoke the idea of easy porch days. It was also a nod to the architecture of Latin America, where the beans are from.
Willow: The other Blonde roast. Like the tree, branding experts at Starbucks wanted to evoke an image of something big and beautiful but soft.
Verona: The company wanted this coffee to be a love story, so named it after the Italian town where you can find Juliet's balcony. The bags it comes in have a QR code on the back that, when scanned, tells the love story of a real-life couple.
The closing date for submissions to Lay's chip-naming contest has been corrected in this story.