Brand Survival Over A Cup of Coffee
Starbucks is in the news a lot right now.
Peace. Love. … To Give more than to Receive. Profit and revenue take the back seat.
Coffee is way more than just roasted beans and boiling water. Way more than what percolates on the kitchen counter. The consumption experience is more than just sipping it down.
To inspire and nurture the human spirit — one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time!
Believing in the pursuit of doing good.
A purpose that goes far beyond profit.
Investing in humanity. Storing more carbon than the brand emits. Becoming people positive.
The Third Place.
Along with Apple, Starbucks is an icon of the Boomer business sense of Mission.
As Boomers netted the MBAs and both Mom and Dad launched forth into building careers empowered with technology, the home life of stay-at-home moms making breakfast and families gathering around a kitchen table gave way to a new 24/7, digital-paced life of career and advancement pursuit.
Howard Schultz captured that vision in his books. Howard Schultz captured how the brand dealt with the conflict of the vision with brand operations.
Howard Schultz believed that the conflict between vision and reality could exist. Starbucks was more than roasted beans and boiling water and the environment the coffee was sold in was more than a place to sit and sip.
Starbucks today in 2022.
More than double and triple price increases. Digital orders vs. human exchange. Seating areas closing down and replaced by more drive-thru. Staff unionizing.
Howard Schultz is now going back to work.
He returned from retirement to confront a complete brand severance of operations and mission.
That unique nugget of space where folks could gather and cherish the time together while sipping organic, earth-friendly, coffee crafted by baristas who worked to protect the planet earth and better the lives of those living around it is no longer a deliverable of a company operating 33,850 stores+ with coffee drinks sold everywhere from C-stores to gas stations to supermarkets in variations from nitro-infused to energized to flavored variants.
That unique affordable brand experience is now priced at $6 served in a Venti size (extra-large) cup … the price of what a full meal costs per person at the average order at the counter restaurant… even now with inflation on a speed race.
Those who know me, worked with me, even been to a presentation lecture know that I have championed Starbucks and Howard Schultz in the past.
I have showcased Starbucks as an icon of the Experiential Brand.
However, several associates asked me at a recent presentation where was Starbucks and why was it not showcased in my presentation.
My reply was simple.
The Starbucks brand experience sits in an empty cup and while the logo might still be on the side of the cup, the historic brand experience is gone.
And I am not sure it can even come back.
- Starbucks Isn’t Really Selling Coffee Anymore
Starbuck’s original product was coffee sold straight with Cappuccino and Latte variations.
Yes… you could get a bagel or a simple pastry to go with it, but the selection was limited.
What one ate at Starbucks was not the catalyst of the Starbucks Brand Experience, but rather a prop.
When one pulled up the website, Starbucks passionately balanced stories of the farms where the coffee beans came from with stories of the experience of sitting at a table and connecting / re-connecting with friends and family.
Today the Starbucks’ homepage features how to get promotional points, signing up for a Starbucks Rewards Card, a drink called Nitro Cold Brew, what’s going on over in Asia and India and how partners (employees) are getting extended job benefits.
There is nothing about the farms where the beans are grown. Nothing about how the coffees are freshly ground. No pictures of the Starbucks “third place.” Nothing about a basic cup of coffee.
2. For Many the Smart Phone is their Kitchen Table
The Kitchen table left many households as a family gathering spot back to dine and dash.
Family discussions went quiet. Sharing stories of the day disappeared. Seeking counsel got lost.
The Kitchen Table became unused space that evolved to another work desk or drop off spot.
And what functions it performed in family connectivity eventually got channeled over to social media and texting.
Dialogues and exchange anchored by a Smart Phone. Something portable that did not have to have its own physical space nor a time allocation of co-gathering.
The need to fill the gap of a kitchen table is now filled by non-conventional channels and platforms.
There is even a portion of Millennials bringing back family gathering times in the new homesteads.
While that kitchen table might actually be a kitchen island with stools, its where Millennial families sit together and have conversation and exchange again.
Surrogate space is no longer needed.
3. The Drive Thru Moved Starbucks from Café to Just Another Quick Service Restaurant
I will place a $100 on the table that the drive to add drive-thrus to the Starbucks facilities was not sparked by Shultz, but from a person he hired away from one of the fast food giants.
Many of the initial Starbucks were opened up in strip centers. Few were stand-alones.
Initially, the drive-thrus were added to the mix for the loyalists craving the third-space, but had work or events that got in the way for the day and the drive-thrus at least allowed them to grab that coffee and have pleasant thoughts as they were driving in the morning traffic.
But like an addictive drug, the drive-thrus took over command.
Like a tidal wave, the Millennials took over the morning commute flow.
Having served as the Brand Steward for Cartoon Network, many of my meetings with the creative team and the marketing team were not enjoyable experiences. As the Brand Steward, other team players did not like it when I threw down the yellow flag and said no… the idea conjured up was not in line with the brand foundation.
In his book Onward, Shultz talks about how he took the Starbucks brand and restored its core values. His return was a calling from the Spirit above.
His focus was anchored around the quality of the coffee in the cup. Unfortunately, he did not look much further than the cup.
There is no question that a cup of Starbucks coffee tastes differently than a cup of McDonald’s coffee. There were even taste-tests that Starbucks invested in upon his return and highlighted in Onward.
But McDonald’s wasn’t Starbuck’s competition.
In some ways, the drive-thrus essentially erased the missionary, visionary Starbucks brand.
4. The Indie Coffee House Today Owns “Local”
While a brand may purposely or with no intent let go of its Experience Ignition Point, but when it abandons it, consumers will find a replacement to fill it.
There is no question that Starbucks enabled its competition.
Starbucks initially revived the whole idea of coffee cafes. But as Starbucks evolved from the third place café down the street to the large global brand with drive-thrus it lost a sense of locality and the independent cafes filled the gap.
Right now in 2022, Starbucks has just over 15,400 stores located in the U.S. … all branded with the Starbucks logo.
Right now in 2022, there are more than 37,000 Indie coffee houses in the U.S. … all branded with unique names and logos. In addition, the vast majority are owned by someone also living in the local community.
Many even roast the coffee locally and while some might serve pastries, few have drive-thrus and few charge much more than a couple of bucks for their cups of coffee.
Their mission of being a gathering place for their neighbors is much more identifiable and believable than Starbucks stating theirs.
Can Starbucks Brand Experience Be Reclaimed?
Possibly… but there is a whole lot will have to change.
There are some examples of brands that have come back after losing their sense of self — Ford being a good example. Others have re-authored their brands experiences and sense of mission — Pillsbury and Tide being CPG brands that have.
But those brand are physical ones that can be easily recrafted and edited.
Starbucks has more than just the cup of coffee to recraft, but 33,500 stores fronts to redesign, renovate and refocus operations around to bring back its Emotional Ignition Point.
I share this Blog with a focused purpose.
As we move into post-Pandemic times and as Millennials anchor with their kids in their new homesteads, many brands are going to have ask a similar question…
Is our brand’s Emotional Ignition Point not just sustainable but even one where what is delivered is aligned with what we claim?
The one advantage that many business leadership teams fail to tap is the movement of teams from the corporate office to work-from-home during the Pandemic.
Use that work-from-home as an advantage and have leadership take a field trip for an afternoon to observe, listen and chat with those around them.
Call me at 404.245.9378 and I will be happy to help!