We have to admit: marketers of whole foods and commodities don’t have it easy. Product marketing is so much easier when you can reformulate and industrially process something with a bogus health claim and slap a “New!” logo on the packaging. It gets even easier when you can inject exotic substances with a “newly discovered” miracle mystique, likening them to modern day versions of Ponce de León’s Fountain of Youth: things such as yerba maté, açaí berry, etc.

Given that coffee has pretty much been a known commodity for a millennium, how can you desperately try to rise above the crowd noise to garner attention? Two recent examples come to mind in the world of coffee marketing gimmickry: Starbucks‘ cynical commercial co-opting of the electoral process, and a small-time coffee company that exhumed a failed, two-year-old idea with a veneer of “Web 2.0” newness.

This presidential election is brought to you by… Frappuccino®

After running aground on a growth-at-all-costs strategy, Starbucks has been desperately trying to find ways to become socially relevant again. While they still provide some lip service to the notion that quality is still tantamount at the corporation, it’s painfully obvious that, over the past decade, Starbucks completely lost their superior quality claim to more nimble and far better competitors. Far too massive, industrialized, and automated to compete with microroasters and award-winning baristas, today Starbucks is merely fighting a sheer numbers battle against other mass-market, fast food competitors.

One of Starbucks’ moves to enable their loyal customers to help lead them out of the desert was last year’s launch of My Starbucks Idea — which is essentially an online suggestion box that Starbucks positioned as forward-thinking, “Web 2.0” customer engagement technology. One of the customer suggestions submitted and vetted through the site was to offer free coffee for voters in the recent presidential election. (And major props to fellow Chicago South Sider and 44th U.S. president, Barack Obama.)

Starbucks' TV ad wants to buy your vote for the price of a cup of coffee So a week ago, Starbucks pulled out a wordy (and expensive) national television commercial, telling America that they would offer us a free cup of brewed coffee if we could prove to them that we voted.

How’s that for a feel-good promotion, brimming with civic responsibility? Well, it was illegal, for one. This promotional idea made it through Starbucks’ marketing and legal departments about as vetted as our Republican Vice Presidential candidate. Word quickly got out that the promotion violated California Elections Code section 18521 (b), in addition to related federal laws, which essentially prohibit bribing people to vote or not based on the promise of goods or services. Oops.

Starbucks quickly altered the program to comply with election laws, saying the coffee was free just for the asking. So to keep them honest, we took advantage of the offer at the Starbucks on 8th & Townsend Sts.. Sure enough, you had to explicitly ask that you expected the coffee for free.

So who can complain about free stuff, right? But just as we’ve given up the Christmas holiday to crass commercialism, there’s something intrinsically sad about seeing the same happening to our electoral process. We know that in this economy, promotions have to extend well before Christmas. But do we want to live in a society where we encourage voters to participate primarily for the free coffee? And if we’re going to sell out our vote, couldn’t we take a lesson from Sen. Ted Stevens and at least hold out for a Viking gas grill?

Marla of 'Fight Club' says of voting: 'It's cheaper than a movie, and there's free coffee.'

Meanwhile, Starbucks is hoping this promotional event provides a “Look, there goes Elvis!” distraction to investors, as today they announced that quarterly profits have declined 97%. As much as Starbucks wants to scapegoat the economy, their arguments seem all the more hollow while competitors such as Peet’s Coffee & Tea continue to post growth every quarter: Coffee Yes, Starbucks No – Forbes.com.

If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you

We’ve spoken before about the futility of trying to reinvent good coffee. Joffrey’s Coffee & Tea Company not only failed to heed these lessons when they recently launched “Coffee 2.0” (we are not making this up), but they also copied a promotional campaign that spectacularly failed with a whimper two years ago: marketing coffee by and for bloggers.

Free promotional 'coffee for bloggers' -- and it tastes worth every penny!Coffee for bloggers? Now where have we heard that before? Quoting their March 21, 2006 press release, Boca Java’s identical efforts to “directly target this [online] community as a consumer demographic and enable bloggers to purchase, create and name new coffee blends in the product line” failed so completely that today their promotional Web site for blogger coffee simply redirects you to their main storefront — without so much as a mention of their failed “coffee for bloggers” experiment.

Oblivious to Boca Java’s spectacular failure two years prior, a few “bloggers-rule-the-universe” types quickly applauded Joffrey’s Coffee 2.0 effort as a shining, innovative example of how to leverage the blogosphere (gag, hack, spew) as a modern marketing marvel. (And if you’re keeping score on said innovative “Web 2.0” marketing tactics, do note that Starbucks’ efforts to launch coffee podcasts simply blew up on the launchpad two years ago as well.)

Joffrey’s writes of Coffee 2.0: “a new flavor based specifically on the feedback of the beta testers, with ‘upgraded flavor and taste featuring smooth caramel and smoky overtones’ and ‘increased focus power for less distraction.'” So we got ourselves a sample of Coffee 2.0 from its promoters.

How did it taste? Brewed in a French press, the resulting cup was a combination of wet and grainy and little inbetween — unlike the foamy, breathing, emulsion-like substance you get from fresh coffee. Hardly surprising given the dry, hard look of its stale, pre-ground coffee. The same goes for its flat, lifeless flavor. If we are to believe Coffee 2.0 and its beta testers, the future of coffee is basically Folgers.