Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The corporation behind the curtain

A few months ago I found myself in a familiar position- slinging lattes behind the counter at Starbucks. My first go round at the ‘bucks was in college and to this day I maintain that I was one of my favorite jobs. So when earlier this year my agency announced that, that thanks to the recession, our salaries would be cut by approximately 20% I thought maybe I’d don my green apron once again in an effort to supplement my diminishing salary. My plan worked. I was rehired to work the opening shift at a store located on the ground floor of the Bank of America Building. Since this store was smack dab in the middle of the financial district and caters to a lot of foils working east coast hours, we opened at 4:00 am. Shocking, I know. Even more shocking was the fact that I agreed to work there despite these draconian hours. Working these hours was actually by design as I wanted something that wouldn’t interfere with my “real job” as a brand strategist. I took the job and went to work. Twice. That's right, I quit after just 2 shifts and it wasn't the hours that prompted me to hang up my apron, again.

I hung up my apron because the Starbucks that I knew and enjoyed working at was a thing of the past. The very things that I loved- the art of pulling a perfect shot, the camaraderie amongst the baristas, the banter across the counter with the customers were gone. Espresso machines are now automatic so there's virtually impossible to NOT pull a perfect shot*. The baristas seemed more like factory workers numbly going through the now monotonous routine. And the customers seem to want nothing to do with an experience. They want their coffee and they want it fast. I should add that the store I was working in didn't have an actual seating area, it was somewhere between a full sized store and a kiosk, so naturally this only perpetuated the factory-like atmosphere.

I've followed Starbucks over the years, as many brand nerds do, but for me it was kind of personal. Sure it's a big, bad corporation but working there allowed me to see that they genuinely care about their employees and treat them well. Combine that with the fact that I think they're selling a fine product definitely makes for a brand that I'm happy to support. But one day I noticed that the counter tops were crowded with stuff and the food offerings stretched far beyond the more pared down cafe snacks that they had offered for years. I could think of only one thing: brand dilution. A feeling that Howard Schultz also had and expressed in the now famous 2007 memo.

This article that ran in the NY Times about a year and a half ago highlighted one attempt that Starbucks made to "revive the intimate, friendly feel of a neighborhood coffee shop." They did this by shutting down over 7,000 of their stores to "retrain" employees. They focused on techniques to improve taste as well as customer service. Unfortunately, this attempt wasn't enough to weather the economic storm that resulted in the closing of hundreds of Starbucks across the country. But that didn't stop the brand from taking yet another step toward achieving the neighborhood coffee shop they long to become.

Last week Starbucks opened 15th Ave Coffee and Tea- the brand's attempt to create an indie coffee shop environment. The difference being, of course, that this "indie" shop is backed by the world's coffee giant so it's a safe bet that unlike most neighborhood shops the tables at 15th Ave won't require a book of matches to stay level. This announcement is being heavily criticized by brand and business experts left and right. But as we know, it's the voice of the consumer not Wall Street that ultimately determines the fate of a brand's success. And on that note, the writing may be on the wall, or more accurately the blog.

I poked around the site,, and found a blog that currently includes a single post- a welcome message from the store manager Jenna. It was in response to Jenna's post that Kevin, a visitor to the site, made the following comment that may perfectly sum up the very reason why this latest revival attempt may once again leave Starbucks and fans of the brand like myself disappointed. Kevin's comment: "You’re a Starbucks, so why all the cloak and dagger with trying to be an indy. I’d have more respect if you just came out and branded it with the old logo. Focus on the core, the coffee. Seriously as a shareholder this store and move is a disappointment."

*"Perfect Shot" is an actual term that was once used in training materials and in my opinion one of the small things that instilled a sense of pride in employees).

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