A Dear John letter for Starbucks

Dear Starbucks,

We’ve been through a lot, you and I.  But it’s time for me to see other brands. It’s not you, it’s me. No, that’s a lie. It’s totally you.

You swept me off my feet in my early 20’s and taught me how to love coffee – for that I will be eternally grateful. Late Saturday mornings in Chicago. Stolen afternoons in Washington D.C. Even in Indianapolis – back before they actually had a Starbucks – I made do with brief encounters with you at Barnes and Noble whenever I could.

I adored everything about you and people were sick of hearing about my brand crush. I devoured Howard Schulz’s autobiography, Pour Your Heart Into It, as a brand manifesto for how to delight customers and make a a difference. You created a cherished “Third Place” for people to gather – and when I began working for myself, you were right there by my side, hosting meetings and giving me a comfy place to work.

Others tried to make me hate you. Especially when I moved to Seattle (I was thrilled to live in your hometown!). They scorned you as a mass market sell-out, a bland factory coffee line for people who didn’t know better. They scoffed at your hipster lingo, your (in their eyes) sub-par quality. “No, but I love them!” I would scream. Starbucks delivers everything they promise and that’s why they are so great. They deliver a convenient, cozy and consistent experience.  And the Seattle Starbucks locations were flawless models of efficiency, service, and experience.

I held you up as my Prince Charming of a Brand Story.

But then, I moved back to the San Francisco Bay Area and something changed. You stopped delivering the brand benefits I’d come to know and love.

Every Starbucks in the Bay Area let me down – on the Peninsula to be exact. At first, I thought it was a fluke. Had to just be one store. So I tried another. And another. Same story: long wait times, non-engaging baristas, even inconsistent latte quality.  I witnessed your baristas being surly, brusque and downright rude sometimes. Then you started warming up pastries – and nearly scalded my tongue. Why were you being so mean? I thought maybe, since we weren’t in Seattle anymore, you just stopped trying to impress Corporate visitors who might pop in.

Still I kept defending you. I tried to communicate with you. Reaching out on Twitter several times, you gave me radio silence. Other brands like Virgin America and Nordstrom respond back, but you, you just gave me the cold shoulder.

My loyalty is worth more than this, I thought.  So I started dating around. And every time I went somewhere else, I felt like they valued me and my time more that you do. They delivered my latte hot, fresh, and fast. It tasted better. The baristas smiled at me. They seemed like they had their acts together.

And then, the kicker. Peet’s started offering almond milk. Oh, how could I resist?

I tried to get you to change. I tweeted several times to ask if you’d please carry almond milk. No response. I even asked the baristas in store and they said they just couldn’t do it.

I think that was the final straw. I’m a valuable customer and waiting inordinately long amounts of time on a brand who says its fast and convenient just to get bad service, a burnt tongue and inconsistent latte quality – on top of not being able to get the milk I want – is not something I’m willing to stand for any longer.

So I’m leaving you, Dear Starbucks. I emptied the last cent on my Starbucks card and I now frequent my neighborhood Peet’s as well as an indie coffeehouse I discovered.

Oh sure, I’ll call you for a quick hook up now and then. You do make a great gift card. And when I have no other option, I’ll see  if you’re around. But to be non-committal, I pay cash instead of  reloading my Starbucks card  – so no need to give me any more free drinks on my birthday. We don’t have that kind of relationship anymore.

I wish you the best, Starbucks. I really do. You’ve done a lot of good for a long time. But a brand has to be consistent to be brilliant. (Tweet this!)  If you feel like changing – at least in the Bay Area – and being the brand I fell in love once again, give me a call sometime.



Photo credit (edited): Siti Fatimah on Flickr

Got a brand you’d like to break up with? Jot down your brand Dear John letter in the Comments below and vent away!


How to brand your brick and mortar business

If you are fortunate enough to own a sweet little boutique on Main Street or a bustling restaurant along the wharf or a funky pet store in the city’s hippest arts district, I have to admit my jealousy. Brand is just as important to service- providers that survive on a laptop as it is for physical businesses. But there are oodles of possibility for boosting your brand when you have a tangible location to decorate, staff and gather your tribe.

Here are 9 ways you can boost the brand of your brick and mortar business:

  1. Build your online community – and then gather them together for a Fans Only event: Whether you host an exclusive wine and cheese Tweet-Up or invite Instagram followers to a seasonal sale, use your space to host real-life events to not only treat your loyal fans like royalty but to create memories and connections rooted in your physical store. Nothing endears people to your brand more than remembering a good time they had making new friends that was all because of you.
  2. Decorate with intent: While many of us only have websites as our main customer storefront, you are lucky. You have a whole physical space in which to convey your brand in a way customers can see, feel, smell, hear and taste. Carry your visual identity into the store with paint colors, signage in your official fonts, and brand imagery throughout. Trying to create a fresh, airy, calm brand vibe? Lay out your store in a similar way. Stock merchandise and create a floor plan that delivers the brand promise to your community in a real, live way. Choose appropriate music and even lighting schemes and scents. If you can, choose a location that extends your brand. If you’re all about being hip and funky, can you rent renovated warehouse space with brick walls or exposed steel beams? If you’re all about adorable, frilly and cute, can you find an old Victorian and give it a fresh coat of lively colors, inside and out?
  3. Collaborate with “The Enemy:” Befriend competitors or neighboring businesses and exponentially reap more rewards for everyone. Can you host a sidewalk sale with all the businesses on your street, share expenses for some entertainment and ads, and draw more foot traffic for everyone? Can you partner with complementary businesses to offer a “crawl” of some sort that take people from place to place as one package deal, like a food tour or yarn crawl (something I recently learned small local yarn shops do). By joining forces, you can do something bigger than any of you could do alone – and not only create more category awareness as a whole but reach a heck of a lot more people. And this collaboration will only spark amazing brand goodwill in the eyes of all customers involved.
  4. Support a cause: Do you love animals? Support a local food bank? Contribute to the fight against cancer? Partner with a local non-profit and host a charitable event at your location. You can offer 10% of all net sales to the charity for the night or ask customers to bring a canned good to get $5 off their purchase. Not only is it brand magic (and good karma) to give back and align with a worthy cause (especially one that compliments your brand, like a pet store hosting a mobile animal adoption event or a women’s boutique raising money for breast cancer), it can attract new customers and perhaps garner you some killer press.
  5. Sponsor targeted events: If you’re an athletic apparel store, sponsor the city’s annual 10K Holiday Run. If you’re a pet photographer with a lovely studio, contribute a photo session package to the Humane Society’s fundraising auction. If you’re a spa, sponsor a local women business owners’ luncheon. Similar to #4, this involves going out into the community to support a worthy cause or event related to your target market, rather than bringing people to you. And you can often provide a goodie bag item or some other tchotchke that gives people a reason to visit your location when the event is over: a discount, a free sample, an exclusive invitation.
  6. Offer live classes and educational events: You’re lucky enough to have a space so use it. Just like you promote valuable educational content on your blog, you can also give people a live experience. If you’re a yarn store, offer Knitting 101 for Beginners. If you’re a pet store, conduct a seminar on proper dog and cat dental care. If you’re a book store, bring in a local business book or cookbook author to present a mini-seminar. If you’re a hair salon, ask one of your product reps to educate on the benefits and proper usage of some of their most popular products. Offer attendance incentives, serve some nice appys and beverages and keep the selling soft. Nothing endears your brand more to people than when you give them something useful. They will remember.
  7. Develop a signature touch: OK, so the Tiffany blue color is taken, but what little touch of class can you add that will become your brand signature and delight customers? A local coffee shop places a single chocolate-covered espresso bean on the lid of every drink. Totally unexpected, totally cool. A home décor store wraps your purchased items tissue paper enclosed with a delicate raffia ribbon. Felt like a gift to yourself every time. Examine your business from every customer angle: Can you do something with the packaging, check-out process or even in-store displays that can become a brand differentiator for you? Maybe all your shelves are a unique recycled wood, maybe your hangers are all purple velvet? Get creative.
  8. Hire right: With the unique ability to convey your brand in the physical world comes great responsibility. Just one negative experience in your shop with an employee will ruining your brand forever – and with social media, you don’t want to take the chance of that one unhappy person influencing thousands. Hire good brand ambassadors. Will they support your brand values and leave the right brand impression on customers each and every time? Do they treat people who don’t buy on a visit just as well as the treat the ones who do? Just one employee has the ability to make or break your brand, since that one person represents your entire business to the customer at that moment. Hire people you know will live out the brand when they pick up the phone, turn around a disappointed client or ring up the next person at checkout.
  9. Remove all barriers to purchase: This sounds obvious but I’m constantly shocked by how many times small businesses get this wrong. Make it as easy and seamless as possible for someone to buy from you. This experience will make or break your brand. This means accepting cash AND credit cards (sorry folks, cost of doing business), investing in a really great and easy-for-employees-to-use POS system to expedite checkout. Clearly labeling all items with the right SKU’s. Posting the right pricing information near the product (don’t make me guess). Making sure you staff well enough so people don’t wait forever in line and change their minds because it’s too much hassle. I hate when I’m ready to buy my stuff and the cashier has disappeared for a spell. Ensure your staff is trained well so they can truly serve the customer and are not just some hired monkeys scanning a bar code. I’m always uber-impressed with bike shops. My husband is a cyclist, so we’ve been to many and we never fail to find that any staff person we may grab is super passionate and knowledgeable about cycling. They attract the right people, invest in training and ensure there is no reason for the customer to leave without exactly what they are looking for, unless they don’t happen to carry it. And if there’s ever a wait, a staff member will always drop whatever they are doing to assist in almost every bike store I’ve seen. That’s quality.

If you have a brick and mortar business, how have you branded yourself? What has worked for you or been less successful? Do any businesses you love have a signature touch? Please share your wisdom in the Comments!

A high-end dive? Uneeda Burger

I’m constantly amazed at how successful restaurants use brand experience to tell a story with everything they have: decor, menu, design, staff. Many of them really get it.  I mean, you can get a hamburger nearly anywhere these days, but Uneeda Burger in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood creates a welcome experience of a “premium roadside burger shack” that I’ve been craving.

The brainchild of Chef Scott Staples, whose other local favorites include a high-end bistro (Restaurant Zoe) and a fine gastropub (Quinn’s), Uneeda is playful, authentic and super fresh.  How does one open up yet another burger joint amidst options ranging from McDonald’s to the classic 50’s-styled greasy drive-in, Dick’s to the experimental and futuristic build your own burger vibe Lunchbox Laboratory.

Some ways Uneeda differentiates:

  • Decor: With an old gasoline station-type sign out front, and an outside patio framed by wooden beams, you might not give this place a second glance driving by. It’s got a very “last rest stop for 100 miles” feel to it. When you step in, wooden tables, floor and counters greet you in a very Western-evocative setting. You can alsmost hear the cowboy boots kicking up dist as they clomp, clomp, clomp over to the counter to order.
  • Design: The Uneeda logo mimics lettering from an old fashioned Western hot-iron brand, combining think block letters and scrip. It instantly conveys casual, farm-fresh and even a bit of rebellion, in my opinion. They also use detailed illustrations like you’d find in a old school book or almanac.
  • Menu: But anything but a dive bar menu awaits on the chalk board above the cashier. Burgers are made with all-natural beef or you can sub-out 100% Wagyu (Kobe) grass-fed beef for additional coin. They tout locally sourced beef, chicken and veggie options as well. Premium toppings run the gamut from Gruyere to portobello mushrooms to manchego cheese to carmelized onions to roasted chili relish to watercress. You an also order salads, sandwiches and soups. And hand-dipped shakes and “artisinal sodas” stand alongside standard beverage staples. They also offer craft beers and wine.
  • Staff: You order at the counter and your food is then brought out to you. But the behind-the-counter staff is as friendly as the table servers you’d find at Staples’ sit-down dining establishments. They know all about the food, can make recommendations – and our gal even let us know that another Uneeda Burger would be opening up in Seattle soon.  They cross-sell and interact with customers just as a table server would, which differentiates them from your basic fast-food joint.

Just goes to show that you don’t necessarily have to be selling something no one’s ever sold before. You just have to put your unique brand spin on it and communicate that differentiation through  every customer touchpoint. People will notice.

What customer touchpoints do you focus on to stand out from your competition? What is your unique edge in a crowded market? Post a comments and get some link-love back to your site!