What Were They Thinking? The Morning Java That Left Us Cold

Americans drink 400 million cups of coffee every day–so why was Maxwell House Ready-To-Drink Coffee such a colossal flop? Branding lessons from a morning brew gone wrong.



Cup of joe, eye-opener, black gold, the daily grind–coffee goes by many different names, and Americans love it. We drink a total of 400 million cups of coffee every day, which translates to an average consumption of 3.1 cups per person. Whether you consider it a necessity for conducting business, a morning energizer, or simply a relaxing pleasure, one thing is certain, coffee is here to stay.

General Foods launched Maxwell House Ready-To-Drink Coffee in 1990, long after the invention of Mr. Coffee and right before Starbucks exploded onto the scene. The Maxwell House carton was found in the refrigerated section of the store, promising a convenient new way to enjoy the rich taste of Maxwell House Coffee.

So what happened to make this day-starter disappear so quickly from the shelf?

Where They Went Wrong 

Packaging: The packaging stated the key consumer benefits–brewed with “crystal clear water” and “the fresh-brewed flavor and aroma…are locked in this exclusive foil-lined fresh-pack.” Foil and microwaves don’t mix very well, so it was necessary to pour the coffee into a mug first, then heat it up in the microwave. A microwaveable package–or better yet, individual cups of coffee that were microwaveable–would have better delivered on convenience, particularly when we are running out the door. 


Hot or Cold?: The imagery on the package showed a steaming cup of coffee, indicating that the coffee should be served hot. It makes sense since most coffee is drunk this way. But there was no suggestion to drink this as iced coffee (if consumers even would at the time), possibly creating an additional usage experience for the product.

Consumer Need: With the popularity of the automatic drip coffee maker, was there really a need for a ready-to-drink coffee? The Mr. Coffee brand has a category household penetration of more than 80%. Coffee is already fast and easy to brew, so what benefit was the Maxwell House Ready-To Drink Coffee really bringing to consumers?

The Takeaway

So what can we learn from this product failure?

Deliver The Goods: Again, common sense tells us that if you are delivering a benefit of convenience, then you need to make sure the product is convenient in every way. The foil-lined package was a killer from the beginning –and the concern should have come up in focus group research with consumers. Better packaging may have saved this new product.


Know Your Market: Was this product really more convenient than making a pot of coffee at home, or getting it from the coffee cart at work? With a little more investigation and market research, General Foods may have realized that this product better served the foodservice channel rather than the consumer channel.

Create New Trends: Sure, hindsight is 20/20, and seeing how Starbucks has literally transformed the specialty coffee industry and educated us on iced coffee and cold coffee drinks like frappuccinos, you might say that this product was simply ahead of its time. But only if the key package visual wasn’t a cup of steaming hot coffee.

Sandstorm Inc. is an innovation firm specializing in the upfront insights and innovation process. Sandie Glass and Laura Wolfram bring a combined 34 years of experience in helping Fortune 500 companies like Procter & Gamble, Disney, Nike, American Express, GlaxoSmithKline, and M&M/Mars tap into their creativity to achieve remarkable business solutions for market success. 

[Image: Flickr user CoffeeGeek]

About the author

Sandstorm inc. is an innovation firm specializing in the upfront insights and innovation process