The notorious memo Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz sent to colleagues on Wednesday, February 14, 2007 10:39 AM was something less than the typical Valentines Day greeting.
As most of us know by now, Schultz decried the various changes taking place in his stores and warned of the commoditization of the Starbucks experience. In other words, the singular Starbucks experience is becoming something less than singular.
And hes right.
A few weeks earlier, Fast Company special projects editor Bill Breen and I sat in a Starbucks on Madison Avenue and ranted about how Starbucksthe former cult classicis becoming mass consumerisms most despised storefront.
Now that Starbucks has spread itself around the globe you can see their originality slowly drip away. With over 6000 stores worldwide, you can feel managers back at headquarters trying to gain incremental per-store profit by increasing merchandise and cutting per-store costs.
Starbucks stores are being overrun with merchandise from Starbucks-owned Hear Music CDs, Starbucks-owned Tazo teas, and a retail clutter of books, cup and saucer sets, seasonal designer cookies (why do all Starbucks pastries suck?), tea and coffee makers, games, puzzles, Mitch Albom inspirationals, and, oh yes, coffee beans.
The slow deterioration of quality in standard issue Starbucks gear (I have no proof, but does todays Grande fit in my hand like yesteryears Tall?) is also apparent. The carrying tray that looks formed from paper pulp by woodland elves has become a flimsy notion of its former self. I noticed this as I was carrying four wobbly Grandes home to our holiday crowd.
These are all evidence of the slow deterioration of that which have come to know as the Starbucks experience. In traditional parlance, Starbucks has begun borrowing from its valuable brand bank.
I am reminded of a meeting I had a few years ago with former Rollerblade marketing exec and Rollerblades former CEO. Both had been at Rollerblade in the glory years as the first fifteen people (known as the “First 15”) at the company created a new sport and new influence. (Imagine convincing municipalities to repave their paths and sidewalks so that your customers will have a better experience with your product. Unbelievable.)
With success came growth. With growth came new hires. And thats when the trouble started.
The new people started bringing in ideas from the companies they came from. Good packaged goods and marketing companies like Pepsi, Scotts, Pillsbury and elsewhere. Trouble is, they didnt have the vision of Rollerblades original fifteen citizens; the ideas the new team members brought forth seemed, well, like old ideas.
Instead of new ideas, remarks the former marketing exec, I felt I was seeing existing ideas repurposed for Rollerblade. Thinking that might have worked for Pillsbury or Pepsi, but not necessarily fresh thinking for a product that had launched an entirely new category.
The same thing could happen to Starbucks. (Which Howard Schultz certainly realizes and what prompts his memo.) As someone at Starbucks once whispered to me, We dont actually know how we got to where we are today. We just dont want to screw it up.
Starbucks is a primal brand. Their experience is delivered via icons, rituals, and a lexicon that beautifully surrounds that experience. Where Starbucks will succeed is by delivering java juice experiences at new, enhanced levels. Increase the energy, dont dilute it. It isnt enough simply to broaden your offerings. Reignite them. Our challenge as marketers is in knowing how to continually excite and re-excite our audience.
Starbucks will learn that its one thing to be an instant success. Its quite another to have the self-awareness that provides brands the elasticity and longevity that helps them stretch over 100 years and more–like Levis, Ford, Wrigleys, Abercrombie and P&G.
It will be another decade or more before Starbucks becomes as trite as (god help us) Chock Full ONuts. But as Howard Schultz knows, as they lurch toward ubiquity, they edge further and further toward being just like everyone else. How they prevent this is something that nobody knows for sure. Hopefully, Howard does.