Scott Monty - Strategic Communications & Leadership Advisor

Scott Monty - Strategic Communications & Leadership Advisor

We've all had our own Starbucks experience, right? Whether it's standing behind someone who orders the most outrageous drink there is ("half-skim, half half & half, half decaf mochachinolattechai with just a dusting of nutmeg and cane sugar") or putting up with the nearly $5 a cup price in order to have access to WiFi in a comfy chair. Name your Kafkaesque moment. I'm sure you can work Starbucks into it.

Recently John Moore Brand Autopsy wrote a manifesto (with help from readers) called What Must Starbucks Do? I was in Phoenix at the time this was released, spending time with my wife's family for Easter.

To set the stage, you should know that one of the things I inadvertently gave up at the end of Lent was Internet access, as my mother-in-law doesn't even have dial-up at her house. So I did what any new media junkie would do - I made the excuse that I needed "outside coffee" and got an hour at the local Starbucks.

When I arrived in the parking lot, something struck me about this store in North Phoenix. As someone who frequents Dunkin Donuts more often than Starbucks, at first I didn't notice it. But as I watched the flow of traffic, I realized something: this Starbucks had a drive-through.

Uh-oh. A drive-through. That's the hallmark of assembly-line commoditization. And even though there's probably a Starbucks slated to open in my living room next year, I think going for ubiquity with a drive-though is a mistake.

Considering that Starbucks was founded on the premise of giving the customer more than just coffee - giving them the Starbucks experience - it's a fairly alarming development. Those grab-and-go customers out in their cars won't be soaking up the jazz, browsing the java accessories, or watching the barista do his thing. There'll be no sense of shared community that one gets (or is supposed to get) by heading into the store.

No sirree. Because in this case, Starbucks traded experience for convenience. Don't get me wrong - there's nothing wrong with convenience. But it's what everyone is trying to offer these days and it's not a differentiating factor for a brand.

It's telling, then, that Moore's manifesto mentioned that Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz is similarly troubled:

In an alarming internal memo made public, Howard expressed his concern that Starbucks is in danger of losing its soul, its uniqueness—its remarkability.
Any brands - whether they are coffee houses, watches, automobiles, toothpastes, mobile phones, enterprise software or professional services - need to evolve to stay relevant. But the ones that will succeed are the ones that are relevant while being unique.

What's Starbucks' ultimate recipe for success? According to a number of comments in the manifesto, the central ingredient is simple: make great tasting coffee. It's that simple. Make it more flavorful and more robust than any other coffee house.

The lesson here extends to any branding effort. It's easy to evolve with your customer base, but don't do so at the expense of your product. Always remember what got you where you are in the first place and redouble your efforts to maintain that excellence.

How's your coffee?

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