Sunday, May 8, 2011

Onward: How Starbucks Didn't Change Much At All

I'm sure by now that many of you are aware that Howard (I keep wanting to call him Charles) Schultz has written a book. It's hard to miss; it's prominently displayed in every Starbucks on the planet. It's supposedly about how Starbucks realized that it had lost its way, found its "soul" once more and has since enjoyed success. Umm, ok. I'll play along.

I managed to get my hands on a copy of the internal Cliff's Notes passed out to employees, which included a a synopsis of the book and some, hehe, talking points. Now, before I go any further, I want to stress that I enjoy going to Starbucks, and among fast food, the service is, without doubt, the best.

The first, third, and fourth talking points are all pretty standard fare. It's the second point that I find almost laugh-out-loud ridiculous? Not your standard business book? You don't read many business books, do you? That's, like, the formula for business books. Not only that, it's the formula for any interview on any news program of anyone who has ever been associated with business at some point in their life. Either that or it's an incredibly truncated essay on To Kill a Mockingbird.

And on that first point, I find Starbucks' rediscovering of their soul to be almost entirely semantic. All of their actions are couched in quasi-spiritual terms, but strip those away, and everything that Starbucks did is standard operating procedure for a food service company trying to reinvigorate sales. They beefed up their marketing and drastically revamped their food selection. Their "re-training" of baristi did nothing. Truly, multiple coffee comparisons came out after the training sessions declaring Starbucks to be far from #1. Moreover, I had lattes from two separate locations the day after training. One was from an anchored location inside of a supermarket, which did not receive training, and another full location that did receive training. This was as direct a comparison as could be hoped for. The post-training latte was terrible. The milk foam was coarse and overly hot and the espresso tasted burnt. I'm assuming that the machine was simply not calibrated, but you'd think they would have made a point to do this right after the much-ballyhooed event.

The ordeal seems to me like they conjured up good-sounding words to describe what they were doing, then handed the entire thing over to people who couldn't have given less of a shit about soul or mission, and simply did what they knew would work, because their "food service 101" text book from business school had an entire section on it.

Oh, and if you're thinking that My Starbucks Idea is somehow an example of Starbucks bucking standard business practices, you're quite mistaken. I submitted ideas to that website and read hundreds more. Any ideas that could have been truly revolutionary, inventive, or otherwise disruptive never made it anywhere, regardless of the number of votes that it received. It's not just me saying this, Brand Autopsy, which is run by a guy who used to work for Starbucks, analyzed the "success" early last year. It's not pretty. Starbucks didn't even offer free WiFi when that article was written, even though customers demanded it, and it had already been offered at local cafes since sometime in the High Middle Ages. Oh yeah. Really rocking the boat there, Starbucks.

Again, Starbucks should ditch its high-falutin' language, it does no one any good, and recognize what they are. They are fast food for people who don't want to be seen with a bag from McDonald's or Dunkin' Donuts. That's obviously a big market. And I would know. I'm frequently seen with a Starbucks bag.

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