Starbucks must rebuild its brand integrity

Starbucks has looked shaky of late, as competition caught up with its 'coffee as social institution' concept, staff qual...

January 14, 2008

Starbucks has looked shaky of late, as competition caught up with its ‘coffee as social institution’ concept, staff quality has visibly deteriorated and its in-store marketing efforts has become fractured and unclear.  The declared purpose of the organisation has become totally disconnected from the experience, and the leadership had, until recently effectively disengaged from leading the brand.   

No surprise that this erosion of brand integrity has finally hit their profits.The Starbucks story reflects the tiredness which crept into the Body Shop brand in its later years prior to acquisition by L’Oreal and more prosaically, also the McDonalds story – an offer grounded in a distinctive service proposition which is both trivially copiable in principle and increasingly inconsistently delivered in practice.   

This ‘brand hypocrisy’ phenomemon afflicts all pioneers at some point. Just when the whole world wants what you set out to offer, your brand finds it lacks the authenticity to deliver it…Starbucks is more relevant than ever, but just not resonant any more.  It has plasticised its experience.  Consistently too inconsistent across a variety of formats and product lines.If Howard Shultz’s decision to take over at the tiller again just results in some cosmetic bean -grinding showmanship at point of sale, the brand will not turn round.   

While Jobs has made a decent fist of revitalising the Apple brand, that rebirth is based upon a new interpretation of old design values – not simple a repolishing of an old product.  On past record Shultz can do it, but it’s no easy task. For Starbucks  to regain its integrity will mean first and foremost reconstructing the experience around its coffee.   

The Starbucks service experience was conceived as a natural extension of a respect for coffee and its production and consumption – a position now rather hypocritically occupied by coffee republic.  Once the coffee becomes an add-on (as it has arguably begun to do on station concourses and airport lounges and in work cafes) it is just an irritant… Being consistent does not mean applying a one-size fits all approach to customer experience, it means staying true to brand principles…