What is wrong with Starbucks? If anything, Starbucks is a victim of its own business success and is a case study in what happens when a business confuses its business success with brand success.
For years, brand experts cited Starbucks as an example of a successful brand. The Starbucks brand lessons were lauded and copied. Throwing around words like “experience” and “destination” as the Starbuck’s brand attributes and even lauding the company for building such preference without advertising.
For many, it was a case study in how a brand can build preference through the strength of equities alone. Because of Starbuck’s recent business contractions all of this seems to beg for some revisionist history. But I think it really asks for a hard and critical look at the Starbucks business from a brand perspective (See our writings on brand perspective). What had they done right and what are they doing wrong?
Starbucks Brand Evolution
The issues surrounding Starbucks provide a clinic on brand evolution and the changes that a brand must make as a category, even a changing category, moves from immature to mature. In effect, Starbucks is a victim of its own success.
In the US (not in Europe and especially not in Italy), Starbucks changed the coffee drinking habits of a nation as Americans discovered the difference between Arabica and Robusta beans and developed a taste for a better brew than what was promised by the supermarket retailer giants of Maxwell House, Sanka, Folgers, and Chock full o’Nuts. As we “discovered” the difference as consumers, we reveled in the “experience” of being a coffee connoisseur.
I remember the first time, years back, when I first “discovered”- through a Starbucks shop – the difference between drip coffee makers and a new French Press. It goes without saying that I had long ago abandoned the trusted percolator that was given me by my parents who thrived on “good to the last drop” Maxwell house.
Back in the day, when you experienced a Starbucks for the fist time, you felt like the authentic coffee expert you were, seeking out a Starbucks, having them bag your fresh beans (because Starbucks had helped the coffee expert recognize the importance of fresh beans) and grinding it to your specification.
In those days, a latte was exotic and the in-store display of beans in Starbucks showing the progression from fresh picked coffee berries to the dark roast of espresso helped you experience the feeling of expertise as you “bought your precious beans” from the source. Amazing to say, but the Starbucks brand has not caught up with the movement they themselves created.
While the coffee category grew, Starbucks did not. It didn’t realize we had changed. The reason Starbucks is now failing is that we are thinking we need to abandon the “date we brought to the dance” because another date has caught our eye and seems like a better fit for who we now are.
To be fair, a few things about Starbucks have changed. It now has drive-through windows in suburban stores— which promises a new experience but is really the illusion of “fast” service and the “more convenient” ability – to being able to purchase beans in pre-packaged vacuum-sealed bags and K-Kups.
The latter may deliver fresher beans, but the experience now is more akin to a supermarket than the source of fresh beans. It has the same authenticity of purchasing a sweet roll, donut, scone, or specialty sandwich. We all know they are not made on site but shipped in from a warehouse along with the pre-packaged beans.
Inside the shop, Starbucks has decided eclectic is a more appealing ambience than comfortable, and there is no service unless I walk up to the counter and stand in line again. Those important anti-brand values aside, the real changes are in the customers and the brand’s lack of adaptation.
What we owe to Starbucks is a change in us the coffee-drinking customer. Starbucks taught us that, as “coffee experts” we must demand more from our coffee experience.
The key here is “more.” It means that the bar is always rising and the experience needs to, at the very least, keep up. In the best possible scenario — lead the way.
Unfortunately, Starbucks believes that means instant coffee. (As if anything could be more instant than my Keurig K-Cup maker.) Or that it means the convenience of having a Starbucks in the supermarket or at a book store (another dying category). The “experience” or expectation of “more” is lost because now Starbucks believes I want to run into my local supermarket for a cup of coffee and buy my beans pre-packaged where I buy my Velveeta and Wonder bread.
Solving Starbucks problems requires a thoughtful and detailed process. But every brand that takes the lead in any category through innovation in product or experience will have to change adapt and continue to evolve. If it does not, pretty soon you will begin to look like Starbucks, one of the world’s largest and most successful failed brands.