People would say that I am a Starbucks brand loyalist. A frequent flyer on the caffeine jet. Passionate about my triple-venti-nonfat-caramel-drizzle latte. As a marketer, I have been betrayed by Starbucks.
“The world has changed and Starbucks has changed,” says Howard Schultz in his explanation of the new Starbucks logo that was revealed in March of this year. “The new logo…allows us the freedom and flexibility to think beyond coffee.” Starbucks has been diluting its brand for a number of years. The commoditization of its product – coffee – led to dissatisfied customers and industry analysts wondering if the brand would survive. A memo from Howard Schultz to his top executives in 2007 leaked to Starbucksgossip.com and gained the attention of the New York Times. In it, Schultz asked executives to de-commoditize the Starbucks brand and go back to their core values. A message, The New York Times points out, vastly different from the message he delivered to Wall Street.
I remember the old Starbucks fondly. In fact, I worked there my first year out of college, helping to open the first Starbucks in Saratoga Springs. I didn’t really drink coffee at the time, but I will tell you it was one of the favorite jobs I’ve ever had. I remember making the perfect latte for a customer – two shots pulled in 20 seconds (from the old grind and tamp espresso machines), filling ¾ of the coffee cup with milk, ¼ with foam. Steaming milk was an art – getting the foam just right was critical. Having enough foam to fulfill a special request of an extra dry cappuccino took time, patience, skill – carefully watching the thermometer to ensure it was steamed to just the right temperature.
We had customers who were in every day for their special order. When you handed them their hand crafted, perfectly created beverage, you could see the instant gratification in their face, in their stance. For them, it wasn’t just coffee, it was the start of their day.
It was an experience – an experience rooted in coffee. Customers would ask if we had Italian Soda, breakfast sandwiches, fountain drinks. No, we had coffee. Excellent coffee. We were Starbucks.
Today the experience is vastly different. Baristas are no longer tethered to the espresso machines, working to pull the perfect espresso shot. Milk is steamed by tossing a pitcher under an automatically timed steamer. I can’t remember the last time my venti latte cup was actually topped with the right amount of foam. I watch sadly as my caramel drizzle sinks right to the bottom of the cup, no longer positioned at the top of my cup with a nice, thick foam.
Starbucks is no longer about coffee. They are about the masses. Schultz says it here: “…forming connections with millions of customers every day in our stores, in grocery aisles, at home and at work. Starbucks will continue to offer the highest-quality coffee, but we will offer other products as well.”
I don’t dispute that in order to survive in this economy, with increasing competition and the need to grow its customer base, Starbucks needs to evolve. But this logo evolution has me wondering and questioning – what exactly does one of my favorite brands stand for? How can they juggle frappucinos, iced tea, sandwiches, and who knows what else and still be about the best coffee? Will they ever make me a perfect latte again? What exactly does it mean when your favorite coffee shop removes the word coffee from their logo?
The key lesson here is evolving without disenfranchising your brand loyalists. These people have been with you for years, supporting your core values, and driving your business. They will walk 10 city blocks to seek out your store, instead of drinking Starbucks-brewed coffee from the hotel lobby. They still prefer to buy beans from the Starbucks shop instead of a big box store. Most important, they are the people who believe your brand experience is truly unique and not a commodity.
The jury is still out on the evolution of Starbucks. But as a marketer, I have to admit, I’m concerned about the viability of their new platform. I can no longer answer the question, “What does your favorite brand stand for?” The answer is no longer a singular, concise thought. That can’t be a good thing.
Palio is an advertising agency revolutionizing pharmaceutical and healthcare marketing to create experiences that will Never Be Forgotten.