Angela Natividad's Live & Uncensored!

27 February 2008

Contemplating the Starbucks Sebatacle

Yesterday all corporate-owned Starbucks shut doors from 5:30 to 9pm for emergency barista training.

During the 'bucks blackout, competitors leapfrogged each other to deliver discount specialty drinks. Some, like Dunkin' Donuts, went all $0.99. Others, like Biggby Coffee and Coffee Klatch, gave cups away.

I'm reminded of an ad icon who felt great brands were never built on the lean backs of discounts. It lends the sense that your only means of differentiation is your cost. Discerning users in your market -- and if they stick around long enough, they all become discerning -- might take advantage of your discount once or twice, but over time they'll start veering away from you.

Nobody professes loyalty to a five-and-dime.

I'm prattling on about this discount/differentiation thing because Ken Wheaton at Ad Age thinks the 'bucks blackout served two major purposes (neither of which had to do with turning baristas into sages):
  • Proving Schultz means business about a dramatic company overhaul
  • Generating serious press
And not just one-hit wonder press either. When all 7100 of the biggest coffee chain's stores close to "improve the quality of its baristas," guess what message reverberates across the pond?

Starbucks isn't about cost. It's about quality. It's about you.

I used to be a Starbucks barista, back before baristas talked crap about customers in front of you and stole merch after hours. Corporate was downright dramatic about instilling a sense of sanctity in what we do for people. I totally drank the Kool-Aid.

Sometimes I miss the days when I stank of Breakfast Blend but was able to sincerely call SBUX my "third place."

Schultz, if you bring your little green empire back to basics -- serving samples out of a French press, learning the names of regulars, and making even non-purchasing loiterers feel welcome -- I honestly think you guys can bring the fire back.

You've always had the magic formula. Surprise, surprise! It wasn't breakfast sandwiches or copies of The Kite Runner. Just stop with this too-big-for-the-little-things nonsense.


Jimmy Little said...

Sure, the stunt sort of worked as intended (and as you and Wheaton picked up), but isn't it a little too late (as in "way too late...") to try to rescue Starbucks's long gone reputation? Even a "sebatacle" isn't going to do much to change the reality that Starbucks is now the the ten-ton Microsoft sloth of middle-brow coffee. It's just too big to do what it used to do when it was smaller; and smaller chains have and will step in to do all that so much better. It needs to concentrate on becoming the Wal-Mart of coffee instead of pretending to be Peet's circa 1990.

Angela Natividad said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Angela Natividad said...

Oh god Jimmy. As a Starbucks loyalist, I can't stomach the idea of it becoming the industry WalMart.

Not all dinosaurs need to go Walton Way. If it plays its cards right, it could still be the coffee man's Target -- a happy medium.

Jimmy Little said...

But Starbucks is already the thousand pound gorilla of coffee; it's only smaller outfits like Peet's that stand even a chance of playing Target to Starbucks's Wal-Mart. But neither of them have a hope in hell of developing the sort of ruthless targeted humour behind the Tarzheh image phenomenon, have they?

Angela Natividad said...

I still say Starbucks could. Dunkin' can keep all that thrifty dinosaur glamour to itself.

Jimmy Little said...

Well, I trust that when you're the CEO of Starbucks, you'll make things better :-). Until then, it's The Milano on Telegraph or Tully's in Oaktown for this old dinosaur :-).

Angela Natividad said...

Fuck, I forgot about Tully's.

I really liked Tully's.

Jimmy Little said...

And it's still there, of course, right next to the BART entrance on Broadway... Tully's is the sort of chain that I can actually go to without feeling an awful pang of conscience. Still prefer the Milano micro-chain, though -- just the right mix of good coffee, so-so food, dirt, sleaze, sarcastic staff, and odd patrons.