Tuesday, May 5, 2009

What Starbucks could learn from Honda

I don’t get it.

Starbucks is fighting all sides to maintain its market share and position as most beloved coffee shop and what does it do? It runs some print ads telling us to “Beware of a cheaper cup of coffee” in one ad . (Now you’re telling me what to think?) In another it reinforces it’s money-back guarantee – "If your coffee isn't perfect, we'll make it over”. (Isn’t that what all good companies should do? Stand behind their product?)

Given all the passion and creativity that built this iconic brand, I’m disappointed that this is all they’ve come up with. Is this meant to reinvigorate the brand?

I’ve always believed in the fundamental principles of branding and marketing - leverage your strengths and points of differentiation. Think about it. Starbucks has built a business by building communities (Howard calls it The Third Place) – just walk into any well run store and you’ll see people engaged in conversation, mom’s meeting other mom’s and chatting about baby health issues, hopeful singles meeting for the first time, girlfriends breaking up with their boyfriends, business conducted over lattes.

Life happens over coffee –

When all the right elements are working, what makes Starbucks special is the unique spark and energy generated by the people who inhabit the café – the baristas and the customers. Now more than ever, people need community. People need affirmation, they need a place for renewal, a place to gather and discuss. Think of all the online communities that are springing up. Starbucks is missing a wonderful opportunity to cultivate these emotions and become the heartbeat of the community once again.

So who is doing a good job creating an emotional connection with their advertising? I can’t believe it’s a car company – but it’s a car company. Honda has done a wonderful job of warming the cockles of my heart. I want to join this group of people and converse with them, I want to drive this car and share the values that make up the Honda community.

Starbucks could learn a lot about creative and innovative advertising from Honda. In their ads, they’ve shown how a shared experience can create a community. Take a look and tell me what you think.


  1. Amen. I think this ad campaign is defensive...like if you have to explain the joke, it's not funny. There is zero emotion and I'm actually turned off.

  2. I agree this first round of ads are defensive... But, aren't they meant to be? They are designed to talk back to the Dunkin' Donuts and McDonald's ads?

    There was a day when Starbucks offered something so much better - they didn't even need to address Dunkin' Donuts.

    I'm withholding full judgement until I see more from Starbucks. (1) More communication and (2) an upgrade in the in-store experience (consistent quality/service).

    John Moore, from Brand Autopsy pointed out to me that a long-time Starbucks partner responded to some criticism about Starbucks new policy of not brewing decaf coffee in the afternoons.


    Too, Starbucks is on Twitter: @starbucks

    Could this finally be Starbucks willing to engage and promote conversation and debate with customers, fans, and foes? Will Starbucks work to set the record straight when there is inaccurate bad mouthing?

  3. Karen - I love your blog! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on SBUX ads. I was happy to see something from SBUX as it seems like there has been radio silence for too long - all I've been hearing is through PR releases of VIA and new pricing. I wish they had launched a campaign a few years ago to pre-empt MD and Dunkin. I agree that now it seems defensive and reactionary...

    Thanks again for your great posts. I love the Swedish MD ads :-)

    Sarah Harrison

  4. Hey Paul. Thanks for your engagement. A couple of thoughts that touch on your great points.

    The ads are meant to be defensive

    When did you see defensive win? When did defensive ever feel like leadership? Being drawn into the ring with McD's brings Starbucks down market and bathes McD's coffee in a halo of respectability. As a Starbucks fan and shareholder, I am hoping for bigger things from the rest of the campaign - although I can't understand why you wouldn't start all guns ablazing with your most brilliant work.

    Starbucks response to criticism from decaf discontinuation

    Regarding the discontinuation of decaf.....Starbucks built a brand on the "longtail", creating your special drink your way, when you wanted it. I'm sure it was a difficult decision, but it's also a surprising one. They basically broadcast a "you're not welcome here" message to decaf coffee drinkers during a time when every customer is precious. Yet, to their credit, Starbucks just intro'd a gluten free cake. Go figure....

    Starbucks willingness to engage with customers, even those who are critical

    YAY! I commend Starbucks for it's efforts in leveraging social media to engage their fans & critics and build a sense of community. In my opinion, the ads seem out of sync with this smart effort.

    My advice - Go Bigger. Have fun, make people happy, engage them in dynamic ideas and issues, on and offline too. Show your humanity, take all the great things you do and create uplifting conversations. Do it in a way that will make me feel good about my choice. Rekindle my pride in being part of the Starbucks tribe or compel me to (re)join.

    Starbucks....reclaim your mantle as zeitgeist!

    p.s. I wonder how many cup holders are in the Honda Insight.

  5. Sarah,

    Thanks for your visit. I'm always happy to hear from Starbucks alumni on my blog, especially those that comprise the new crop of talented marketers and business leaders!

    all the best, kk

  6. Coffee is never about money! Coffee is about relationships.

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