Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Starbucks contemplates its brand experience

AdAge is running a good article on the "death of the Starbucks brand experience," citing a recent trend from inside the company (in fact spurred on by chairman Howard Schultz, as noted by a leaked memo picked up by Starbucks Gossip last week) of cutting costs and improving efficiency at the expense of the brand's experiential qualities. For example, the article cites things like delivering vacuum-sealed ground coffee to stores across the nation (as opposed to having them grind their own beans), and using pre-measured espresso "capsules" instead of having barristas pull shots as examples of the way Starbucks has been commoditizing the brand experience in order to keep up its growth rate. The problem in both of these cases is that by reducing the authenticity of the environment and the personalization of service, Starbucks is relegating themselves to acting as a glorified coffee (and CD, and scone and breakfast sandwich) vending machine, losing some of its homey ambiance in the process. Combined with the fact that they were found to have some of the worst-tasting coffee according to a recent Consumer Reports study, that equals a big problem. The most interesting quote from the article is this gem, which definitely sheds some light on the company's changing focus:

"You probably wouldn't leave a Starbucks dissatisfied, but satisfaction is just the price of entry. It has lost its differentiation, its crispness of experience."
In an age where a leaked memo could be a PR ploy as much as it could be a simple oversight, a quote like that could indicate a genuine interest in becoming remarkable again, or it could simply be motivational rhetoric. As one of those coffee snobs who scoffs at Starbucks, I can't say I have a big emotional investment either way, however Starbucks has been one of the standard examples of how to do brand experience right for over a decade now. Watching such a giant stumble but recover would certainly be educational for anybody interested in improving the in-store experience of their venues.

[2007-02-27 UPDATE]: As usual, RetailWire has an excellent thread going on this very subject.

Tags: Starbucks, store experience, marketing at retail

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