I Went To Starbucks And Saw The True Meaning Of Brand Loyalty

Absurdly Driven usually looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

I’ve been trying to resist.

I’ve been trying to shelter at home, look out at the world and hope to see a little sunshine.

But Starbucks has been my habit for a long time and, well, it was 7.53 a.m., the time when I used to go get an almond milk latte.

I turned to my wife and she said: 

You need your fix, don’t you? Let’s go.

So we donned our masks and drove to the only Starbucks we know that’s still open. The one with a drive-thru.

As we drove, I wondered about my relationship with the brand and why it’s managed to endure when it would have been so much easier for it to be swallowed by a thousand pretenders.

What elements have contributed to its success? There are three.

A Core Idea, Adapted To Local Tastes.

While Cupertino had Steve Jobs from the very beginning, Starbucks’ celebrated leader, Howard Schultz, didn’t arrive until 1982. And then only as director of retail operations and marketing.

The Starbucks we see today didn’t begin to materialize until 1985.

Schultz’s inspiration was Milanese espresso bars. Yet he didn’t try to replicate them, so much as adapt them to an American culture. 

No Italian would have imagined that they were in Italy if they went to an American Starbucks. Then again, they’d be happy they weren’t in a McDonald’s. Actually, where did Americans drink coffee in those days? Dunkin’ Donuts? That brand’s been around since 1950.

Somehow, Starbucks managed to become shorthand for a decent standard of coffee.

Perhaps it wasn’t quite the same level as how, for years, all tablets were known as iPads. It wasn’t too far off, though, because Schultz had given Americans something they thought was new, theirs and something that could become a habit.

What’s truly remarkable is that Schultz adapted a European idea and then managed to sell the American version back to Europe. It’s a little like a Hollywood remake of an Italian movie. With all that implies.

The Product. The Product. The Product.

Sometimes forgotten is the sort of coffee Starbucks brews. For me, it has just the right level of bitterness to be the perfect kick in the mouth, first thing in the morning.

Yes, Starbucks branched out into all sorts of disgracefully sickly Frappuccinos and pastries, but something about its coffee makes me go back. And I’m clearly not alone.

The Staff. And The Experience.

The last element is perhaps the most important. By treating its employees well when few fast-food companies did — many still don’t — Starbucks built a reputation as a decent place to work.

It was relatively revolutionary that Starbucks offered full health benefits to so many full-time and part-time staff — benefits that covered domestic partners — in 1988.

In essence, then, when the staff was at least a little happier than at, say, McDonald’s they transmitted that to customers.

Indeed, the staff create the atmosphere and each Starbucks still has its own quirks. But go there regularly — and that’s what the chain really wants and needs — and you become part of the experience yourself. Just as you would if you went regularly to your Milanese espresso bar.

And Still They Come.

Yes, I managed to think all these things in a six-minute drive. It was clearly a good morning. No one had yet tried to annoy me.

Suddenly, we turned the corner to enter the shopping mall where this Starbucks is located. But we couldn’t enter. 

The line of cars stretching from the drive-thru went all the way along the mall to the road.

It took us perhaps 20 minutes to get our coffees.

Yes, you might offer that when you’re working at home, as so many people are, you still need your morning coffee. 

Yet there are other places to get coffee around here. Local supermarkets and even restaurants are serving it. You could also make it at home. That way, you wouldn’t even have to get dressed.

Something drove all these car-owners to this one place to experience this one brand. And to sit in their cars for many minutes and patiently wait.

Still, the Starbucks product and brand experience manage to be oddly alluring. These days, perhaps they’re reassuring too.

We want to go to the place that’s still there, that seems to have been there since the beginning and that has withstood the great changes.

I took my first sip and the familiar bitterness drifted around my mouth.

And then I was in a state to write this column.

Published on: Apr 18, 2020

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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