Given how jealously brands guard their heritage and image, co-branded initiatives are fairly rare and are approached with delicacy and no little trepidation. The recent collaboration between Hershey and Starbucks in the premium chocolate sector offers a fascinating insight into what happens when two iconic brands join forces. Wendy Piñero, vice president consumer products at Starbucks, spoke with Michelle Russell about the challenges and opportunities the joint venture presents.

just-food: Starbucks and Hershey are both iconic brands in different sectors. What are you looking to achieve with the launch of a co-branded chocolate?

Piñero: This is an extension of the Starbucks experience. We hope to meet our customers’ demand for an engaging chocolate experience, and we believe the Starbucks chocolate portfolio will meet this demand.

j-f: What made you decide to join forces?

Piñero: Chocolate is the perfect complement to coffee and tea and so it was only natural that the coffee experts at Starbucks and the chocolate experts at Artisan Confections [Hershey] would find one another. Both companies have grown with a foundation of strong values, and from a passion to provide customers with high-quality products that have become part of their daily lives.

Our two companies also have complementary competencies in areas of expertise and distribution capabilities.

j-f: What is it about this new range that makes it different from other premium chocolate products on the market?

Piñero: Chocolate and coffee share many of the same flavours and aromas, which make them a great pairing. Starbucks chocolate is artisan-style chocolate inspired by and using ingredients from our own coffee, tea and other coffeehouse flavours. Each piece uses premium cacao from around the world. The shape of each piece also reflects the coffeehouse experience, with vanilla bean shapes on the vanilla truffle, tea cup shapes with the Chai truffle and cacao beans on the signature chocolate bars and tasting squares.

j-f: You have said that with this launch you are looking to make “a positive difference” by sourcing cacao that is “economically viable and ecologically sustainable”. Can you elaborate on this commitment?

Piñero: We really hope to make a statement and commitment to advance the cause of socially-sourced cacao. It is a stance that we have historically been known for – Starbucks, that is – and one that Hershey has also committed to.
So, when you take the strength of these two companies in really helping address that, I think that what we can do is really powerful. There is a lot of people, it’s not only us, but we hope that this also takes – to a commercial level – a commitment and an awareness of really trying to make sure that these ethically-traded practices apply also to cacao.

j-f: The premium chocolate sector in the US is a dynamic market at present. Where do you see your product in relation to Cadbury’s imminent launch of Green & Blacks and Ghiradelli’s move into premium chocolate bars?

Piñero: I think to ignore competition would be foolish but what we are hoping to do, much like we do in all of our other categories in coffee, is to provide consumers with something unique and different that makes them want to try us. But in terms of it being competitive, it’s just a matter of you becoming relevant and having a different approach to it that will make consumers choose you over others.

Wendy Piñero, Vice president consumer products at Starbucks

What I also think will be a source of competitive advantage to us is the notion that you can have a solution that as a hostess you can serve it to your guests knowing that it will match perfectly.

j-f: Starbucks has clearly been influential in the development of the coffee category. Do you believe you can be equally influential in the developing premium chocolate market?

Piñero: Well it’s hard to predict but what I hope we will see in chocolate and with our influence in this category, is what we also did in coffee. Over time we have seen in the US a category where coffee was essentially flat, how the taste profile has shifted to better quality coffees and consumers enjoy it and they are adopting it at home and away from home. Hopefully we’ll see the same thing happen in chocolate.

j-f: Given that the chocolate has been inspired partly by your own coffeehouse flavours, why have you decided not to launch the new line in Starbucks stores?

Piñero: Well I wouldn’t say that we decided not to do it, but we decided to do it in CPD [Collaborative Product Development] channels first. In CPD channels you will never really have that option of the food pairing that I could go to my customer and say “OK here is a food solution you can market together to a consumer”. So we do not have that yet in CPD channels whereas in our stores you do have a lot of options. So in the future, who knows, stay tuned but we had to make sure that the customers that choose Starbucks in any channel, have an option of a full solution.

j-f: You have only launched in the US so far. Do you have plans to launch this product in other markets?

Piñero: Right now it is only in the US but we are a global company and we are always looking at options, but frankly it’s about listening to what the customer tells us and giving us permission that they are ready to embrace that.

Obviously our priority of coffee authority and coffee expertise comes first and foremost. Starbucks chocolate is a complementary product and business to the core of our company. It is designed to be a complementary category to coffee so in each country, each of the business leaders will decide when is the right time. But we feel much like our coffee and our cafés that this is a proposition that will travel well, and let’s face it, who does not like chocolate?

j-f: Are there any other developments on the horizon for the Starbucks/Hershey partnership?

Piñero: Not that we’re ready to talk about at this time but I will tell you to stay tuned. At least once a year you are always going to hear new things. It’s the way this category is. It’s very dynamic but there are always things that come and go that are prone to drifting.

You always want to refresh your chocolate offerings to keep them relevant, but people will choose you if you stay relevant and much like our beverages, you want your flavour, your ingredients and your positioning to feel very current.