We fragile humans all feel the need to be a part of something - a community, a club, a team, a clan - and the more exclusive or special that group is, the more special and safe we feel. It’s why village-dwellers love to have a pewter tankard behind the bar of their local... it’s Friends, it’s Cheers, it’s tribal.
So when Baldwin, Siegel and Bowker opened a store in Seattle’s Pike Place Market in 1971 (lifting the Starbucks name from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick), and Howard Schultz exploited the Italian model in the 1980s, this imported phenomenon with a community feel rapidly became a goldmine.
The people who frequented their coffee shops in the early days found a little local sanctuary to hide in or meet and ’chill’ for a few moments each beleaguered day. In my view, unfortunately, success meant the inevitable happened: Starbucks became a large corporation. The profit monster reared its ugly head; the shops became slightly dog-eared; the ’assembly line’ became more mechanical and the personal connection and empathy disappeared to be replaced by... industry.
Competitors like Costa are performing better. The fact that their environments are, in my view, slightly warmer and more inviting may not be entirely divorced from their success. When companies or brands stop making us feel special, we will start looking somewhere else.
Some of my colleagues are sceptical about Starbucks’ US experiment to take the Starbucks brand away from three of its stores in Seattle (there are no plans to do the same in the UK yet). The idea is to reconnect with its customers and its pre-globalised roots, with more flexible opening hours, an alcohol licence and live events. I’m less cynical about it - unusually for me - provided the execution is right. 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea, as it will be known, feels like it’s being created to provide havens for people to relax in. But the execution is everything - the environment, the staff, the products, the ambience, every detail needs to be right.
It needs to make you feel part of it, just like the local village pub, where you know the names of the bar staff, they know your favourite drinks, everyone knows or recognises nearly everyone. It’s proposing the joy of local community in a developed world where local community has been systematically dismantled.
The real danger they face is history repeating itself. When a brand model is right, you need to look after it and ensure everything you do remains true to the brand. You can gently evolve it to keep it fresh, but the second you lose what the brand stands for, you’ve lost the brand. A brand isn’t a function, it’s an emotion; and it’s this fundamental that we’ll explore next month.