The Category Insights Behind Starbucks’ Success

Jerome ConlonMay 15, 20209203 min

If the relationship between a company and its customers is based upon respect and regard, if it’s based upon truth, trust, and transparency, then an authentic “friendship” or even “love” can form.

America, however, is historically a transaction culture, as exemplified by friction-free, convenient selling that’s a central idea in most quick service retail formats. In a fast food restaurant everything is optimized for speed – ordering, delivering, and eating is all supposed to happen within 15 – 20 minutes, which serves a culture on the go and in a hurry.

Recognizing The Fast Food Threat

But in 1996 when I joined Starbucks as VP Brand Planning, the quick serve restaurant transaction story presented a challenge. We understood that specialty coffee is not fast food, but the alluring bitter-sweet aroma of coffee can easily be lost in a grill restaurant with a deep fryer, so we had to be attentive to understand and nurture the qualities that makes Starbucks special.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz was concerned that if we followed the fast food model all the way, the Starbucks brand would fall short of its growth and development potential as a respected and loved brand, that it would debase itself by becoming transactional, and he was right. By undertaking a deep dive research project, we learned the story behind the global culture of coffee, specialty coffees, coffee houses, and the history of coffee culture that was shaped by specific ideals. We realized that if we ignored them, Starbucks would likely turn into a corporate coffee chain, the “McDonald’s of coffee,” and thereby falling far short of our true potential.

Embracing The Coffee Culture

We learned that coffee serves many roles during different parts of the day, in different social situations, individual moods, and need states, none of which were served by emulating mass-produced fast food or the fast food environment. Coffee-break moments nurture soulful calmness, and don’t merely fill bellies. By uncovering the history and role that coffee plays we learned how to build a unique brand bridge story to reach coffee consumers, and in the process we also uncovered a vocabulary of passion, purpose, depth and personal significance, all connected to coffee culture.

This story’s vocabulary was verbal, visual, and experiential, and once we began to understand it we were able to nurture it through a passion for getting the product, service and overall experience exactly right. This vocabulary provided the people who worked inside Starbucks with greater meaning and deeper perspectives on what their individual actions were contributing to the ideal coffeehouse experience.

Through this process, of course, Starbucks built a resilient brand bridge between its business model and the ideal consumer experience. And given that at the time there was virtually no budget at Starbucks for advertising in mainstream media, we were obliged to focus on the things that we could control, which included all aspects of store design, product packaging, and the many brand touch points that we were able to influence.

As you know, it’s worked out pretty well, but it’s important to go back to the starting point, which was the search to identify the essential elements of the bridge between the brand we aspired to develop, and the innate values, characteristics, and expectations of our customers. By showing them consistent respect, regard, and even love, we built a brand story and brand that resonates to this day.

These core ideas and others can be found in my latest book The Brand Bridge – How to Build a Profound Connection Between Your Company, Your Brand, and Your Customers.

The Blake Project’s brand equity measurement system is comprehensive, measuring each of the five drivers of customer brand insistence – awareness, relevant differentiation, value, accessibility and emotional connection – along with other factors such as brand vitality, brand loyalty, brand personality and brand associations. Contact us for more on brand equity measurement

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