Getting Back to Your Roots (Beans?)

Starbucks is on of the most iconic brands in my humble opinion. Maybe it’s because I love what they do, love their coffee, love the mission that Howard Schultz set out to achieve (create a third place, a community, over coffee). I know everyone likes to rain on their parade and think of them as the big bad “chain” shop, but let’s face facts: they did indeed create a new market for coffee in this country, change American coffee drinking habits, and popularize the “coffee shop as meeting place” concept for the masses. Let’s call a spade a spade. So is their branding and advertising really delivering on that promise in these tough times?

I had an interesting conversation with brand expert Karin Koonings on this topic. Check out her blog post about it. With price pressure from McDonald’s, Starbucks is choosing to focus on quality for the price, vs. discounting their own prices. That part is smart – even if we both thought the execution of this strategy in their ads is a little too fear-based or basic. What is less smart is that they are not acknowleding in any way, shape or form the secret ingredient to their initial success. Something McDonald’s may never have going for it: the sense of community and “place.” That’s what Starbucks should be focusing on. I remember when I used to go in there and see all kinds of information on fair trade coffee, and how Starbucks was supporting those communities in South America, as well as the local community. The place would be abuzz with local events, happenings, and various community outreach projects. Now that seems like an afterthought in many of their stores, behind the racks of CD’s and $500 take-home coffee machines.

Getting back to community, a sense of place and involvement, would be a much better differentiator for Starbucks that trying to simple say “The other guy’s coffee sucks.” Which, from many accounts I’ve heard, is not the case. They have a wealth of stories and testimonials for this in all their stores – right now, people are meeting to do business, catch up with friends, or chill out with their iPod. Where are these stories?

What do you think?

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