Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Coffee'd out of my face

Remember a few weeks back I regaled you with the tale of how I obtained a load of samples of Starbucks' new VIA instant coffee? Well the story kind of didn't end there. A few days after nabbing all those samples, I picked up a card in Secret Starbucks that gave you the URL for a survey about the new instant coffee, and promised a free £10 gift card and box of VIA to the first 500 people to fill it in.

I'll have some of that, I thought.

Unfortunately, the questionnaire was a rather long-winded affair, and when I got to the end after 25 minutes (yes, I said 25 minutes!) I got a message that said something to the effect of "sorry, we've met our quota for this survey, no freebies for you young sir!"

I quietly uttered a very specific, somewhat colourful response, and continued on with my day.

Last week, however, I received a phone call from a market (I said market, not meerkat) research company asking if I'd like to take part in a focus group for Starbucks.

Is the pope catholic?

Before I could be signed up for the group, however, I had to answer a lot of inane questions, most of which I'd already answered for the online questionnaire. I'm sure these questions are very specifically designed to glean an insight into Starbucks' customer base, but to give you an idea of the sort of thing I was asked, the final question was: if you could choose a superpower, what would it be, and why?

(If you're interested, I chose the ability to fly because it would make it so much easier getting around town, although in hindsight some sort of sexy pheromone secretion to make me irresistible to the ladies might've been a good idea; at the very least it would have skewed their research in a new and interesting direction.)

After noting down all that exciting information, the guy at the research company mentioned almost inconsequentially that I'd be paid for my time: BONUS! Ha! The fools - talking about coffee with like-minded caffeine addicts? Do they not know that I'd do this sort of thing for nothing?! On the downside, I had to do some homework. Poop.

My homework assignment turned up in the post towards the end of the week, under the guise of a 'coffee diary.' I shan't bore you with a complete run through of what I needed to do, suffice to say that it actually wasn't too much of a chore and I didn't have to take my clothes off. Two assignments did stand out for me, however.

Assignment the first was to write a short story based on my first time drinking Starbucks VIA. Bearing in mind that I was getting paid for this, you could actually say that it's my first commissioned story. What an auspicious start to my novel-writing career. Anyway, I didn't just want to write something boring like "I poured some water on it and it made coffee and I drank it and it was good." No; I decided that I'd try and subvert it a little bit. My initial thought was to write some kind of epic Starship Troopers-style science-fiction story in about 200 words; I had it all planned out - the opening lines were going to be:

I had to stay awake - I could hear the Pytherion sneeze-beast looking for me in the distance, and I knew that if I fell asleep it was more than likely that I'd wake up to find a leg missing. All I had in my ration pack was a sachet of VIA and a small camping stove. This little packet of coffee was all I had to see me through to dawn - all I had to keep me going until reinforcements arrived.
It's even more hella-cool if you read it in the voice of Cartman.

Ultimately I decided to go with a less fantastical style just incase they thought I was a mentalist, although I did give it a little bit of a film noir-twist. So, ladies and germs, may I present to you my coffee story:

It was not the best of times nor the worst of times; it was not a dark and stormy night. It was just an average day, and all I wanted was a decent cup of coffee. I looked at the small packet in front of me, picked it up and squeezed it gently, feeling the consistency of the powder within. This couldn’t make a good cup, could it? This little thing? I tore it open and breathed in the warm aroma that I’d freed from its confinement. It sure smelt good, but I still had my doubts. I heard the water in the kettle bubble to its boiling point, dropped the VIA in a mug, and poured the scalding liquid on to it. The powder and the water swirled together into a rich dark form spilling up to the rim of the mug. The smell I’d been entranced by just seconds before intensified and I found myself holding the mug close to my face as I drew in long, deep breaths. But now it was crunch time. I raised the mug to my mouth and took a swig. It was rich, bitter, smooth - everything I like in a cup of coffee. I settled back in my chair and took another mouthful. A guy could get used to this…
Awesome huh?

Assignment the second was to make a collage of what VIA means to you. Yes, you read that correctly: a collage. I've not made a collage since I was about seven, and seeing as I'm not in the habit of keeping copydex glue and glitter in the house, I decided to make mine in PhotoShop.

Good innit?

Actually, no it's not, but it served its purpose. Let me walk you around it:

• There's a picture of Hammersmith, because I drink coffee there every lunchtime.
• A smiling cat - because coffee makes me smile. I don't know why I picked a picture of a cat smiling, but I'm sure it'll have an interesting effect on their research data.
• The Rolling Stones - because I often equate drinking coffee with listening to music.
• A couple hugging - because a hot cup of coffee is something to snuggle up with.
• A coffee postcard that I found a few years back. I think it speaks for itself.
• A pic of Yazzle Dazzle hiding behind a coffee mug, because drinking coffee is a social thing and it's a vital part of our friendship.
• Some books. Coffee shops/book shops - they kind of go together, right?
• Some woman writing - because I often have a cup of coffee on the go when I'm writing.
• A contented Panda - because I like to chill out with a cup of coffee.
• Some dude running - because coffee perks me up (not like that, saucy).

Anyway, I did all this, and this evening I headed off to the focus group, which was very conveniently being held in a Starbucks I'm familiar with because I drive past it on the way to work everyday. I was the first to arrive, and told the woman conducting the group that I was quite pleased with my collage. She looked at me and asked if I was being facetious.

Without going into too much detail, the group was quite interesting (I've done one before, and experienced them from behind the scenes as well) and we had a bit of a lively debate about the pros and cons of instant coffee. We also had a coffee taste-test in which we sampled a cup of VIA versus a cup of Kenco, and although we all thought from our previous experience with VIA that it was at the very least OK, it was only when we tried it against a competitor that we realised just how good it actually was (and before anyone says that they tampered with the Kenco to make us favour the VIA, they didn't; they opened the jar in front of us, and we actually had to make our own).

Bearing in mind how much time I spend in Starbucks and how much cash I throw their way, it was good to feel that my thoughts on the brand were both valued and important. There were two representatives from Starbucks present, and I felt like hugging them and asking them to give Howard my best. Unfortunately, I didn't get to show off my collage (they took our coffee diaries to laugh look at later), but on the other hand they did bung me an envelope full of cash, so swings and roundabouts, eh?


Dinah said...

My favourite part of the collage is the cat. It just makes me happy!

Tara said...

What are the cons of instant coffee? I know that the main pro of it is the fact you don't have to wait for a whole pot to brew.

Wow, after all of that work you did, they had better pay you! Well done!

If you were a superhero and you could fly, you'd miss out on time spent with your new car!

CyberPete said...

The assignments rock!

I particiated in a Royal Danish Railways focus group once. They too paid and we got a teddy bear of their mascot Harry.

It was fun. I was 20 and besides me, the youngest was 42.

Tim said...

Dinah - I did like the cat, which was why I plonked him on there. I'm not sure what the Starbucks reps will think of it, but I can't see how you couldn't be won over by the little kitty.

Tara - The cons of instant coffee? It generally tastes like crap. The only pro of it is that it's quick to make. The VIA genuinely is so much better.

You're right, that's the only downside of flying. Oh, apart from the possibility of getting struck by lightning. Wait - flying sucks!

Cyberpete - I'm not sure I would except a teddy bear. I'd be quite happy with just the money. Maybe they could've given you extra cash to the value of the bear?

CyberPete said...

That would have been much better but the pr value of the teddy bear has been priceless. I put the thing in a box and forgot about until last year when I gave it to my parents dog.

He had it completely taken apart after a few days of pulling of it's hair. Messy but fun.

BEAST said...

I can undertand taking part in the focus group and getting paid for my opinion .....but an essay and a collage W T F????
I wouldn't have done iether of those , and my coffee diary would have been a total work of fiction.

However your collage is wild :-)

Inexplicable DeVice said...

You mean you don't already have "some sort of sexy pheromone secretion"? How peculiar. It must be your winning personality that has ensnared me, then.

Actually, what I was going to say was: Your non-mentalist, film noir coffee story is awesome indeed.

Emma said...

I wish I loved coffee, the aroma of it always has such great promise. Then I taste it and - meh. Plus, it gives me the shakes and a horrible headache.

Love the coffee cat, but you should have included the coffee-loving Gilmore Girls on your collage! ;o)

Tim said...

Cyberpete - I think you should start a recurring feature on your blog: things the dog can pull apart and how long it took it to do so.

Beast - Yeah, I didn't want to do the coffee diary, but they didn't give you the full amount of cash if you didn't. Canny, eh?

Inexplicable Device - I'm doing my utmost to release you, if that's any consolation.

Emma - I think you've just been drinking the wrong type of coffee. We'll indoctrinate you properly at some point.

missyandchrissy said...

receiving a phone call from a meerkat would have been almost as awesome as getting to be part of the focus group!

Tim said...

Ha! Could you imagine!?

CyberPete said...

You think?


missyandchrissy said...

well, maybe if it was a telemarketer meerkat it wouldn't be that exciting...otherwise i think it would be fun to hear the meerkat talk about his desert adventures in his squeaky little meerkat voice.

Tim said...

Cyberpete - I wouldn't have said it if I didn't mean it.

MissyandChrissy - I think it would loose something if you couldn't see him stand up and look all quizzical!

missyandchrissy said...

that's true! ok, no meerkat phonecalls unless you're on a video conference with them.

Tim said...

Definitely! I'd pay to see them video conference, in fact!