Mar 09

I’ll take a 9mm Glock to go with my espresso, please

March 9 I've never been a fan of the bitter-tasting, over-priced Starbucks brand of coffee. I like their store layouts and soothing jazz music, but I've never bought into the whole 'barista' scene. I'm a Dunkin' Donuts kind of guy. Just the facts, ma’am.

So, Starbucks’ most recent move has really left a bitter taste in my mouth: they're allowing gun-toting customers to open display their six guns in stores. Talk about sending mixed messages.

Here's a brand that always projected a warm-and-friendly 'let's save the environment, we're all in this together' mantra that has suddenly re-positioned its stores as potential stage sets for recreating the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. What are Howard Schultz & Company thinking?

In defending their decision, Starbucks issued a typical corporate cop-out of a statement, saying: 'The political, policy and legal debates around these issues belong in legislatures and courts, not in our stores.' What malarky, as we bloggers of mixed Irish descent are won’t to say.

If Starbucks is willing to allow its customers to openly brandish weapons, why not go full bore and transform the entire customer experience? Stores should be remodeled to look like Old West saloons replete with those cool swinging doors. And, instead of smooth jazz, stores could play such ditties as:

– I Shot the Sheriff (Bob Marley version, please)
– Johnny Got His Gun
– The sound tracks from 'Full Metal Jacket,' 'Apocalypse Now' and 'Platoon'
– The Battle Hymn of the Republic
– A mix of gansta rap, Aryan martial music and any country song that includes lyrics about shooting dead some cheatin' S.O.B.

Baristas should be trained to greet pistol-packing customers with a new welcoming, 'Howdy partner. Is that a .45 millimeter Colt in your holster or are you just happy to see me?'

Maybe the brand name itself should change to reflect the coffee chain's new Wild West mind set? How does Warbucks strike you? Wild Bill Starbucks? I've got it: CSI:Starbucks. Now, there's a name that both reflects reality and is aspirational. And, that, my friends, is a brand experience home run (or should I say bull's eye?).

Apr 09

We have no intention of becoming PR’s version of the Packard

Al Ries, marketing, branding and positioning guru
extraordinaire, has penned a most fascinating opinion piece in a recent Ad Age. April 9 - Packard

The Ries piece (I couldn't resist) warns such marketers as
Starbucks and Cadillac to stop cheapening their brand before it's too late.
Ries says the long lost Packard automobile did just that and died as a result.

Prior to The Great Depression, says Ries, Packard totally
dominated the U.S.
luxury car market. In fact, Cadillac was little more than a distant blip in
Packard's rear view mirror. But, when the downturn came, Packard developed a
much lower cost alternative. The cars sold well. But, when the economy
rebounded, newly affluent Americans went with Cadillac, which had remained true
to its high-priced, high-quality roots throughout the Depression. Packard never
recovered and eventually disappeared altogether in 1957.

Now, fast forward to today. I see lots of commentary in the
PR and advertising trades from agency leaders who are suggesting that others
follow their lead in cutting billing rates to 'ensure ongoing business and
demonstrate value.' I see other 'leaders' offering 'lite' versions of their
positioning, media training and media relations services or charging $500 per
press release. I think such 'strategies' scream desperation and cheapen an
agency's brand.

I think, instead, we should be providing additional value by
being more creative, getting closer to our clients' customers and helping our
clients fight the good fight when their purchasing, finance or legal
departments suggest wholesale marketing cuts.

Cheapening your brand by lowering your billing rates or
giving away your services in "a la carte" menu style will cause you
huge headaches when the economy rebounds. And good luck convincing your clients
that you deserve a rate increase just because other vendors have increased

We all have to endure budget cuts. They're a fact of life.
But offering the PR version of instant coffee a la Starbucks or a Cimarron a la Cadillac is a penny-wise, pound-foolish
strategy. (And Cadillac's mistake of the 1980s was all the more dumbfounding,
considering that it defied the very strategy that made them a big name brand
coming out of the Depression.)

The good times will return. Maintaining one's position as a
high quality service provider during the downturn will ensure a swifter return
to heady profits in the days to come. We, for one, have no interest in
becoming our industry's version of the Packard.

Mar 21

Later, Latte.

Guest blog written by Ted Birkhahn.

Full disclaimer: I am a recovering Starbucks addict.  Every day on my walk from Grand Central to ourStarbucks
office, I pass five Starbucks.  Until recently, I always stopped in one of them and plunked down several bucks on a mediocre latte.  Why?  I loved the routine and the brand experience, not the taste of the coffee. 

But, as the recession loomed and with daily reminders that it’s time to stop spending and start saving, I decided to put the skids on my Starbucks habit.  At first, I tried to change my route to the office so I wouldn’t have to walk past a Starbucks but that didn’t work; no matter what route I chose, I was bound to run into one.  So I decided to show some self-control and just go cold turkey.

Am I indicative of a trend that is sweeping across the nation contributing to the vanishing profits of the world’s biggest coffee chain? It’s hard to pinpoint why Starbucks has suffered.  Did they grow too fast?  Are their prices too high?  Is the taste of the coffee just not that good?  Did the brand – and the experience it provides – run its course?  I suspect it is a combination of all these factors.

However, one thing is certain: If the U.S. finds itself in a prolonged economic downturn, Starbucks is a dead-man walking.  Although it is making major changes to the way it makes, serves and sells its products, I believe the company is too big and cumbersome to dig itself out of the hole that it’s in. 

Only time will tell what happens to Starbucks.  In the meantime, I’m off to the kitchen to grab a free cup o’ joe.

Jan 31

Will Starbucks water down its brand along with its coffee?

Desperate times call for desperate measures. And, Starbucks sure seems desperate at the moment. Starbucks

First, they sacked their CEO and reinstated founder and chairman Howard Schultz in the position. Then Schultz announces that the brand has lost its way and promises to close stores and re-focus on core offerings. Next, McDonald’s, sensing vulnerability, announces it will open 14,000 coffee bars and go mano-a-mano with the once unrivaled coffee king.

And how does Starbucks respond? It begins testing $1 cups of coffee in its hometown of Seattle. That’s right, the guys who dazzled marketing professors everywhere by convincing Americans to pay $4 or more for a cup of Joe, have blinked.

One can almost sense the panic that must be pervading the hallways of Schultz’s once-proud empire. Slashing the price of its coffee flies in the face of everything Starbucks stands for, and should give a monumental image and reputation boost to McDonald’s gamble.

The Starbucks move makes as much sense as Lexus suddenly offering a cheap, ‘starter car,’ Gucci licensing body tattoos or Zegna selling designer overalls.

These are the times that try men’s souls and now is the time for Howard Schultz to stand firm and hold the line on pricing and brand consistency.