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Originally published May 3, 2010 at 9:46 PM | Page modified May 4, 2010 at 10:47 AM

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Starbucks remixes popular Frappuccino drinks

Frappuccino sales peaked in 2006 and Starbucks has been looking for ways to revitalize a drink that CEO Howard Schultz almost killed.

Seattle Times business reporter

Just in time for the summer rush on iced drinks, Starbucks is messing with a proven recipe.

Sales of its sugary Frappuccino drinks have been sluggish, and the company wants to juice them up with new ingredients and a big marketing push.

The milkshakelike drinks, many of which do not include coffee, used to come from pre-made mixtures, and customers loved them. They brought Starbucks more than $2 billion a year in sales, about half in the United States.

Frappuccino sales peaked in 2006, though, and the company has been looking for ways to revitalize a drink CEO Howard Schultz almost killed when employees in Southern California came up with it in the mid-1990s.

"Turning down Frappuccino was the best mistake I never made," he said in his book, "Pour Your Heart Into It."

The solution: Rebuild the Frappuccino using fresh milk, higher-quality coffee and a potion for combining it all that no longer contains high-fructose corn syrup or undefined "milk ingredients," and hype the idea that they are customizable.

Jason Moroles, a Safeway employee in West Seattle who grabs a Frappuccino each day before his shift starts, likes the new drinks. "They're sweeter, and they taste fresh," he said.

Not all die-hard Frappuccino fans will agree, acknowledges Ian Cranna, Starbucks' director of blended beverages.

"From testing, we know that the opportunity to customize so satisfies the fans that it outweighs the disappointment we'll have with a handful of customers," he said.

The new Frappuccino is backed by a big marketing push ranging from ads in Rolling Stone to an online make-your-own-video contest using clips from Starbucks and the TV show "Gossip Girl."

The do-it-yourself video goes along with the Seattle-company's "however-you-want-it Frappuccino" tagline, which sounds a little like Burger King's old "have it your way" jingle.

By adding milk and coffee separately for each drink, Starbucks has created a way for people to customize Frappuccinos like they do Starbucks' other drinks.

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Creative baristas had been able to concoct decaf and lower-fat options, but the options were not official — and soy milk was never a possibility until now.

The formula did not change for bottled Frappuccinos, which contribute to the $2 billion a year in sales, as do Frappuccino-flavored ice creams.

The in-store recipe changed only in the U.S. and Canada, although Frappuccinos are sold all over the world, including the Philippines, where they represent a large chunk of sales, and China, where Starbucks recently introduced a black sesame green-tea flavor.

Starbucks developed the new recipe and its marketing campaign with input from customers in stores and online, where Frappuccino has 1.6 million Facebook fans.

They wanted value and more healthful options, Cranna said.

Although the price remains the same — $2.80 to $4.70 in Seattle, depending on size and flavor — the value comes with the increased choices, he said.

Starbucks will promote the new customization with a half-off Frappuccino "happy hour" from 3 to 5 p.m. starting Friday through May 16.

The healthy part is up to customers and customization.

A local menu board shows a drink that still packs plenty of calories, particularly for someone wanting a double chocolately chip Frappuccino (670 calories for 24 ounces).

Capitol Hill customer Alex Ross tried to cut back by ordering her mocha Frappuccino "light" Monday, which means it had skim milk and sugar-free syrup.

She liked it better than usual, and did not know whether to credit the lightness or the new recipe.

"They used to be kind of bland," she said. "Now, it's more flavorful, more chocolate."

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com

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