Caribou Coffee aims at Starbucks, misses

It's popular, among the upstart coffee companies and the media which covers them, to portray anything that happens in the coffee world as an affront to Starbucks. And certainly, little is done in the industry without an ever-present consciousness of every move of the coffee giant. For the country's second-largest chain, Caribou Coffee (CBOU), sadly, its first TV advertisement is a volley lobbed directly at the Seattle-based leader; but misses entirely.

AdAge says of the television commercial launched Thursday, it's "an approach that pokes fun at its biggest rival, Starbucks (SBUX)." But for customers, that's hard to see. The ad shows two marionettes on a bench at the mall, drinking tiny coffee cups with circles on them (so subtly like Starbucks cups, you'd only know if you paused the commercial to stare), chatting about how "super-important" they're pretending to look. They're snobby and insufferable until an enormous cup of Caribou Coffee, topped with whipped cream and chocolate bits, sits down next to them

"Why don't we ever get Caribou Coffee?" the marionette in the pink sunglasses asks. "Because we're not real," says talking-on-Bluetooth guy. The narrator then turns to the "real pieces of Guittard chocolate" melted into "all of our handcrafted chocolate drinks." AdAge's writer translates: "Of course one of the biggest knocks on Starbucks, from non-brand loyalists, is the perceived snob factor."

Caribou Coffee's ad agency follows up with the explanations: According to Colle & McVoy creative director Eric Husband, "the marionettes are a fun, lighthearted way to drive home the point that Caribou Coffee uses real ingredients," and more: in any of the 400-plus Caribou outlets "there's this very real, genuine vibe -- it's what separates them from competitors."

While authenticity may be the vibe Caribou hopes to portray, it's hardly well-communicated with a sticky-sweet whipped-cream-topped "chocolate drink." And the marionettes are a little funny but they're not obviously caricatures of Starbucks customers. Those "pretend to look important" and "talk on cellphone in front of you" characters are surely annoying but could very well be Caribou customers, too; in every Caribou I've ever visited, the customers are truly indistinguishable from those at the competition.

As are these drinks. Overly sweet chocolate drinks sold at a coffee shop are just as pretentious and inauthentic as those marionettes. One commenter at AdAge nails it: "trying to out-snob the competition's snob appeal is talking to yourself." And while this advertisement is surely funny and expresses the "real chocolate" attributes well, it's unclear whether Caribou is taking aim at its competitor; or at its very own customers. Either barb misses the mark, entirely.

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