197-Can a High End Guy Hit the Mass Market?

Starbucks is a high-end competitor in the fast food industry. We call these high-end competitors Performance Leaders (see “Audio Tip #82: Performance Leader Products and Companies” on StrategyStreet.com). As individuals, these Performance Leaders almost always have small market shares. Starbucks has 4% of the U.S. market for brewed coffee. As a group, Performance Leader market shares usually fall below 15% of a total market. Sometimes these Performance Leaders, following the allure of the volume in the mass market, create products to enter the mass market. We call the competitors who serve the mass market as their primary function Standard Leaders. Standard Leaders control the majority of most markets.

Starbucks has decided to enter the Standard Leader product category with its Seattle’s Best coffee. This coffee brand, and its coffee beans, sell today in Border’s Book Stores and many supermarkets. Starbucks wants to sell the product in fast food outlets, coffee houses and even in vending machines. By expanding the Seattle’s Best Coffee franchise, Starbucks hopes to land a blow to slow the invasion of McDonalds and Dunkin’ Donuts into the specialty coffee market. These latter firms are Standard Leaders who offer espresso-based coffee drinks at lower prices than Starbucks.

It is very common for a Standard Leader to enter the high-end Performance Leader product category with its own brand, as McDonalds and Dunkin’ Donuts has done. (See “Audio Tip #60: Customer Segmentation by Needs” on StrategyStreet.com.) The list of Standard Leaders who enter the Performance Leader product category is almost as long as the list of Standard Leaders. Think of Toyota and Lexus, Dell and Alienware Computers, Marriott and the Ritz Hotel chain, Gap and Banana Republic, among others. Many Standard Leaders discover, as their industries mature, that they must offer Performance Leader products, and sometimes low-end, Price Leader, products in order to offer a full line of products for their end users or channels of distribution.

It is much less common for a Performance Leader company to enter the Standard Leader product category, as Starbucks plans. This is a much tougher initiative. The Standard Leader category sells to much different consumers with different value propositions and significantly higher demands for economies of scale. Apple tried this Standard Leader entry several years ago and backed off in the face of withering competition from Windows-based computer makers. Some Performance Leaders have succeeded, at least to some extent. Harley-Davison offers the Buell motorcycle. Pella offers windows through large hardware and lumber stores. American Express has succeeded in offering a credit card. Years ago, Marriott, while still a Performance Leader, entered the Standard Leader price point with Courtyard and the Price Leader price point with Fairfield Inn.

It can be done, but it is a daunting task. Most Performance Leaders stay strictly Performance Leaders. For example, one company with some similarity to Starbucks is Samuel Adams. That company has yet to offer a Samuel Adams Standard Leader product.

Posted 6/7/10


While Starbucks has continued its outstanding performance, it’s Seattle’s Best Coffee initiative has gone nowhere.

Starbucks has continued to grow far faster than its industry. In 2022 Starbucks had sales in excess of $25 billion. It held a 7.5% share of the worldwide fast food market and a 40% share of coffee stores in the United States. Its market focus has been on upscale consumers in the 18 to 40-year-old range.

In contrast, Seattle’s Best Coffee targets a working class clientele. It has had only limited success in penetrating partner markets. Berger King is a major partner who sells Seattle’s Best Coffee. Still, the Seattle’s Best company’s total sales are less than $20 million per year, invisible in the Starbucks business.

Younger competitors such as Caribou Coffee have been far more successful.

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