“I need a Starbucks”: lessons in branding

Igrew up in a small town on the coast of south-western Newfoundland called Corner Brook. Population: 24,000. Tim Hortons: 3. Starbucks: 0.

I drank Tim Horton’s coffee on a daily basis, but whenever I went on a trip, I sought out the Starbucks. It was exotic, “big city” fare. The day I arrived in Vancouver after driving across the country when I made the cross-country move, what do you think the first thing I did was? Went to Starbucks. I even have a photo of me, leaning, smugly self-satisfied, against the hood of my ’88 Toyota Corolla, with my Starbucks.

Times have changed. My twenty-year-old self longed to do the sophisticated things that big city people did, like hang out in coffee shops and drink cappuccinos. My forty-year-old self would rather have Tim Horton’s again, finds Starbucks overexpensive, oversweet, and not all that tasty, and if I had the chance, would give my business to a smaller, locally-owned indepdendent coffee shop.

But you have to give them props for their branding strategies. Starbucks is a marketing leader in the world. Not just because there is one on every street corner in almost every corner of the world, including Asian countries where coffee is not a part of their culture. Starbucks took the concept of a European coffee cafe and brought it to America via Howard Schultz, Chairman and CEO (and, according to Forbes (2006) the 354th richest person in the United States.

Previous to Starbucks, coffee was served in diners and coffee shops, and was cheap and not that great. There was no such thing as a triple-shot vanilla hazelnut no-foam fat-free latte. Starbucks invented those. The other thing they did brilliantly was they started to charge amounts for coffee that seemed exorbitant, but because they were creating the market, they were able to also charge the price they wanted, and people paid for it.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in Seattle, just a couple of blocks from that first Starbucks. I heard the young woman in line behind me say “I need a Starbucks.” I’m pretty sure what she meant was, I need a coffee. Or maybe just I need caffeine. But what she said was I need a Starbucks.

Whatever your feelings might be about Starbucks, when the proper name of a product takes over and begins to mean the thing that is its category, that is some very powerful branding.

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Rebecca Coleman

Social Media Marketing Strategist, Blogger, Author, Teacher, Trainer. Passionate foodie, mom to Michael, fueled by Americanos. I love my bike. Soon-to-be cookbook author. Localvore with a wanderlust.

Comments 12

  1. Yah and I need a portable Starbucks VIA pouch for long plane rides as airplane coffee, well in my opinion, “sucks”!

    Starbucks brilliance is not selling coffee, it is in selling an “experience”, hence I need a Starbucks translates into I need a coffee!

    Great Blog topic Rebecca!

  2. Thanks, Susan.
    It’s hard to ignore Starbucks when you are in Seattle, and I recently watched a documentary on Howard Schultz, so it was in the top of my brain, and when that gal behind me in line said that, well, I just knew I had to write a post…
    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go get a coffee, 🙂

  3. Kleenex anyone?

    For me, I’ve never understood the attraction of Timmy’s but I also don’t find myself drawn to Startbucks even though I would choose it any day over Tim Horton’s. Why? I’ve heard the coffee has less caffein and for me, because I drink it black, the sweetness isn’t an issue.

    If there’s a local or smaller coffee shop, I’ll use it any day over Tim’s or Bucks.

    Of course, your post wasn’t really about coffee, it was about branding and you’re so right, they’ve done a brilliant job at it.

  4. As there always is someone who has a contrary opinion, I must defend Starbucks.
    We have studied their branding and marketing strategy in school which, in itself, is brilliant, yet what made them “the experience” in the past has seemed to have subsided to an aesthetic, but I can always justify the $5 and change for my triple shot soy latte. I have never been one for drip coffee.
    When faced with a busy day, or waking up on some distant soil far from home, there is nothing more of a treat than to start nursing the huge, strong and slightly bitterly burnt taste of that comforting old friend in a cup.
    When traveling abroad, when I see that sign I make a bee-line straight towards it and get that cup of comforting consistency and I feel the warm comfort of home and something that is mine.
    Mmmmm my triple shot soy latte and it’s just for me.

  5. I totally agree with Susan that more than coffee, Starbucks create an experience. And the way they customize YOUR coffee (or Chai latte! that’s mine;) in ANY location makes you feel just YOU, as you were a part of the Brand. I think that is the reason for Starbucks success even in countries like Spain where everybody drinks “real” coffee for 1 Euro:)
    Definitely, they are doing a great job!

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