unboxed marketing

group therapy for marketers and business owners

starbucks marketing changes flavors

Posted by Steve Buchholz on March 4, 2009

starbucks has taken an odd marketing turn with two new products.

starbucks has taken an odd marketing turn with two new products.

Starbucks has always been about experience. You went to Starbucks because it was cool. You went there to hang out. You even went there so you could carry around a Starbucks cup.

The stores employed barristas who always were slightly pretentious and expected you to know the difference between a half-caf latte and a mocha cappuccino. No questions, please. Just order.

It was a brilliant strategy. Starbucks created markets of loyal groupies who loved being insiders. They knew the jargon, they loved being coffee snobs, and they didn’t mind paying a lot for (in my opinion) mediocre coffee.   

I don’t care what people do, so I’m not denigrating anybody. My point is that Starbucks created this market. The company was able to create a demand for a product people didn’t even know they wanted. It was brilliant.

The company has fallen on some tough times. According to today’s Seattle Times, the company has cut 18,400 jobs and closed approximately 975 stores since the beginning of last year.

Those are some serious cost-saving measures, but what I find even more interesting is the chain’s strategy for pulling more profits. For what seems like the first time, Starbucks is focusing on selling product rather than experience.

Starbucks has introduced Via, the chain’s first instant coffee product, and stores are offering sandwich-coffee combo meals. There’s nothing cool or Starbucksy about either of these things, and they both seem to put dents in the company’s brand.

It seems an odd way to go. I’m guessing the move is a response to the economic meltdown. However, I suggest that makes the Starbucks experience and all it means even more important.

It seems some Starbucks customers feel the same. Today’s Seattle Times ends with a telling anecdote that should have the Starbucks CEO and the company’s marketing office working some OT:

One powerful conversation took place at a town hall in Tacoma last month, Schultz said, after one customer shared that he no longer reads or listens to the news because of how “dark and hopeless everything is,” but he goes to Starbucks to “escape from the burden of the day.”

The customer suggested Starbucks share “an authentic true story of something that happened locally in our community” each day, and the groundswell around his idea led another customer to tears.

Schultz did not reveal whether Starbucks would act on that idea, but said, “Starbucks has a role and a meaningful relationship with people that is not only about the coffee. We need to understand that better and do everything we can to preserve it.”

Meaningful relationships. That’s what Starbucks has forged with its customers. Instant coffee and discount sandwiches won’t have the same impact.

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