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Saturday, January 8, 2011

Iconic Brand, Generic Experience

Starbucks got a lot of press this week after announcing changes to their logo.

But it’s the changes to their experience that tell more about their future aspirations.

Last week, I pulled into a Starbucks drive thru to keep myself caffeinated for the last hour of a long drive.

“Thank you for choosing Starbucks. Please order when you’re ready.”

As soon as the words came through the speakerbox, I felt a letdown.

I’ve seen a lot of changes in the Starbucks experience over the years, but the scripted generic greeting broke a part of the service experience for me.

Starbucks’ brand was built in the tradition of the Grateful Dead – not by being the best, but by being “the only ones who do what they do.” Not long ago, I went to Starbucks' (at least partly) because I didn’t believe there was a viable alternative.

By saying that they’re happy we’ve chosen them, they acknowledged (before I was ready for them to) that there are alternatives. That over the years, they moved to the mainstream as the mainstream has moved toward them. That now, they really are just a fast food chain (albeit still one with good service) that happens to sell coffee, rather than “The American 3rd Place” of Howard Schultz’ original vision.

Branding expert Mike Brown (amongst others) pondered over whether the rebranding represents a push toward the iconic, needs-no-words, brand imagery of McDonald's, Nike, and Apple.

Perhaps, but Starbucks was already iconic. For what its worth, so was The Grateful Dead.

The Dead chose to serve a smaller customer base than “the largest market imagineable.” The evolution of the experience, on the other hand, shows Starbucks’ rejection of its large & profitable niche in favor of a much larger customer base made available through the strategy of moving to the mainstream in food retail.

It has had many signposts: The automated espresso machines were the largest change for me, but the gradual extinction of the baristas’ personal expression, the move into grocery stores, the evolution of the food menu, the adoption of drive thru locations were all indicators of a gradual move toward the food retail mean.

Rebranding may be the notice for some that they intend to move, but the experience had begun packing long ago.

It might be a tremendous success - who knows how many records The Dead might have sold if they made a truly commercial pop album - but abandoning a hard-earned base for an attempt at a larger mainstream audience doesn’t always work out.

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