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Starbucks loses some ‘buzz’

Research firm pegs recent dips in consumer perception to possible fears over coffee prices

The consumer “buzz rating” for Starbucks Coffee has plummeted in recent weeks, although it remains significantly higher than other premium coffeehouse brands, according to new research from online market research firm YouGov BrandIndex.

Researchers with the brand consulting firm are not clear on what caused the recent “swoons” in public perception, but they suspect that news about higher packaged coffee prices might be impacting consumer opinions.

Starbucks, which is scheduled to host its annual shareholders meeting Wednesday, also has been mentioned in news reports about the dangers of public WiFi access in recent weeks, which also could be a factor, said Ted Marzilli, senior vice president of New York-based YouGov BrandIndex.

The firm has been interviewing 5,000 people every weekday from a representative sample of the U.S. population. YouGov BrandIndex talked to coffee and tea drinkers between Jan. 3 and March 16 about Starbucks, as well as other brands in the coffee sector, such as Dunkin’ Donuts, Seattle’s Best, Peet’s Coffee, Tim Horton’s and Caribou.

The coffee chains were measured according to a buzz score, comparing positive and negative impressions of the brands.

Though positive overall, Starbucks’ buzz score dipped twice during the quarter, tumbling from a peak high of 45.7 on Feb. 25 to 23.7 on March 14.

News about Starbucks’ new logo and 40th anniversary celebrations, as well as new products like cake pops, caused the buzz score to jump again to 27.7 by March 16. But Marzilli noted that the coffeehouse chain is way below the high 40s seen earlier this year.

Still, Starbucks remains much higher in its buzz score than other brands. By comparison, other coffee brands ended the period at an aggregate score of about 14.2 last week.

While Marzilli speculated that news of higher coffee prices within the coffee category in general could be hurting Starbucks, the coffeehouse chain has not announced any across-the-board price increases in its locations.

Over the past two years, the chain has raised prices of some drinks in certain markets and lowered prices on others. Citing higher green-coffee costs, however, Starbucks and others last week raised prices on their packaged coffees sold in grocery stores.

When there’s news of higher coffee prices in general, “there’s a chance that people are associating that industry news with the largest player, and that would be Starbucks,” Marzilli said. “Starbucks is the poster child for the coffee segment.”

YouGov BrandIndex's measurement scores range from 100 to -100 and are compiled by subtracting negative feedback from positive. A zero score means equal positive and negative feedback. Starbucks and the other brands were measured using their Buzz score, which asks respondents: “If you’ve heard anything about the brand in the last two weeks, was it positive or negative?”

Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected].

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