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Starbucks: Defensive or differentiated?

Is Starbucks refocusing on coffee, or running scared?

Is Starbucks refocusing on coffee, or running scared?

Joe Senft, a marketer from New York, tweeted about a MediaPost story about Starbucks’ new marketing campaign. This lead to a little bit of debate about whether Starbucks is 1) refocusing on their core competency, or 2) getting defensive because of the recent attacks from McDonalds and Dunkin Donuts (among others).

The first ad, which is the one that appears on the right, is off-message and is definitely defensive. In fact, the ad almost challenges the reader to get that cheaper cup of coffee to determine whether the “price” is worth the money savings. (And…what is the “price” exactly? I think they’re referring to taste, but I suppose it’s possible that they’re talking about all the fair-trade buying Starbucks does.)

But the other ads (previewed on the Starbucks blog — scroll down) are pretty good. “This is what coffee tastes like when you pour your heart into it.” That’s attacking McDonalds, albeit indirectly. The unsaid message: if you want good coffee, don’t go to a hamburger joint or a donut shop. It’s not a defensive position: it’s a different position, and it positions Starbucks’ value proposition squarely in front of the coffee lover.

I do have to say that one of the problems Starbucks has had over the last couple of years is that they 1) added so many stores that their coffee quality started to suffer due to inexperienced managers and baristas; 2) they diluted their “third-place” Italian-coffee-shop-style value proposition with breakfast sandwiches and family-friendly movies (Al Ries, Laura Ries, and Jack Trout would have a field day criticizing the branding decisions on that); and 3) their Pikes Place Roast is an inferior brew to the “coffee of the week” they had pre-2008. (Not everyone agrees that it’s inferior: Peter King, the Sports Illustrated writer, loves PPR and writes about it frequently in his column.)

The result is while the new message is good — “It’s not just coffee. It’s Starbucks” — the message seems a little disingenuous. Yes, it’s Starbucks, but what is Starbucks? It used to be coffee, then it was breakfast, then it was Akeelah and the Bee. Yes, Starbucks, you say you pour your heart into it, but that new barista won’t stop talking to her friend long enough to take my order.

Hopefully, this new marketing campaign signals a focus on coffee and the third-place experience that made Starbucks so successful in the first place. Letting go of thousands of employees and closing underperforming stores will allow Starbucks to hire better “partners,” who care more about customer satisfaction than talking to their friends. And perhaps this will allow a rebranding or a divestment from Starbucks Entertainment and other non-core businesses.

In other words, if Starbucks doesn’t talk about how bad others’ coffee is, but about how GOOD theirs is–and they back it up by improving the coffee and the in-store experience to what it was in 2004–Starbucks could streamline and again be a force to be reckoned with.

Categories: Marketing, Messaging
  1. May 6, 2009 at 7:23 am

    Great post; I’m spreading on Twitter & SU.

    I agree the ad you feature is the opposite of what they should be saying. Furthermore, as a non-Starbucks person, the difference between the people at a Starbucks and the people at the cool coffee shop across the street is palpable. You either want to be seen at Starbucks or you want to be seen at the hip place.

    IMHO, it’s about your own image when you walk in there. The coffee sucks — blind taste tests have proven that — and the price is unarguably high. It’s the image.

    For them to even TALK about price destroys that.

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