Starbucks: the brand experience more than the coffee

by Stephan Vincent

Last summer my wife and I took the kids to Chicago as my daughter wanted to go to the American Girl store to buy a doll. Beautiful summer days prompted us to walk across the city, enjoying the sights and various activities. With young children, every once in a while we have to make a stop to go to the bathroom. Not easy to find clean public bathrooms. In big cities like Chicago, you find Starbucks pretty much at each street corner.

Being European, I may be a bit picky (you can say “snobby”) about coffee. Although the average American Joe or Jane may go to Starbucks for their coffee morning Joe, I find myself that Starbucks’ coffee is very average. Thus, I don’t go to Starbucks for their coffee, I go to Starbucks for what the chain has to offer beyond coffee: its brand experience.

From its prime locations (i.e. easy bathroom stops), from its Wi-Fi, to its activism, its well-design by-products (mugs, espresso machines…), its Teavana “tea bar” concept, Starbucks has managed to create a global brand experience wherever it opens stores.

In Europe, people go to cafés or bars during lunch time, in the evening or the weekend to meet with friends, to relax, to read… Starbucks has imported this European “social” model to the US and made it a global phenomenon.

How many of us go to a Starbucks store to work for a couple of hours, get away from the kids to read quietly? I even see (more precisely hear) on a regular basis job interviews taking place at Starbucks. I like Starbucks as it is an observational deck from my business. Tattooed, pierced baristas interacting with CEOs, families having a treat, business meetings conducted in a store…

Starbucks mixes the corporate brand with and edgier side. Global meets local. On the corporate side, Starbucks is a large global corporation with a local touch. Products are similar from one country to another (products developed by HQ), with a twist to local preferences. You will find a few different products in European stores from US stores, but most of the product offering is similar.On the edgy side, you find the tattooed and pierced baristas, the company’s activism (the latest’s being its campaign against the government’s shutdown), its well-designed by-products, the company’s morphing into a music distributor (music albums being launched exclusively though Starbucks stores), its fair-trade coffee beans… Now, Tweet-a-coffee is the latest company’s program to “to bridge the online and offline worlds”.

It all comes down to the experience, which every corner of the world you are in. Starbucks has successfully brought to the US a social experience from Europe (get together around a cup of coffee), but more surprisingly has brought a similar although different experience to the rest of the world. The last time I was in Buenos Aires, Barcelona or even Singapore, I was shocked to see Starbucks stores crowded with locals having fun. You can find some of the world’s best coffee in Argentina and Spain, and like in many Latin American and European countries, socializing around a cup of coffee (or a beer) is a common habit. You would think that locals would find places offering better coffee. What Starbucks has mastered outside the United States is not to bring a European experience or a good coffee, but to bring a US experience to the world. Europeans, Asians, Latin Americans go to Starbucks for the American experience, not because the coffee is good. It is like going to McDonald’s if you are a kid in France to eat an American burger.

Starbucks has gone so far to create a unique experience that a new coffee chain takes the experience even further. Ziferblat is the first pay-per-minute cafe, based on a Russian chain concept where “everything is free (food, coffee, Wi-Fi), expect the time you spend there.

Please share some of your Starbucks experiences with us!

Image credits: www.vegastrademarkattorney.com, starbucks.com

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Stephan Vincent is the Indiana Editor for Innovation Excellence, covering innovation in the Hoosier state and beyond.  He is Director of Cultural Transformation at Collidea, a strategic innovation firm in Carmel, IN. He is also Founder and President of s.p.IN and Collide Summit Indiana, a first-of-its- kind un-conference unlike anything else. Stephan is a new contributor to IX,  sharing insights from his own  blog.