Starbucks continues to battle to get its brand back, which is a tricky thing as Jon Talton points out in a recent column in the Seattle Times. Howard Schultz argues that the coffee company's brand is still relevant, but as Talton notes, "if you have to say it..."
Starbucks has faced a withering attack from McDonald's, which has painted Starbucks as fussy and over-priced, a message resonating in the recession. A new Starbucks cafe was once the sign of the urbanization of the suburbs and the suburbanization of cities, a kind of oasis of middle-brow quality of life wherever you are. McDonald's has positioned itself as the no-nonsense provider of good-enough espresso, cheaper and no-frills. Starbucks is starting to seem like a symbol of the excess that's produced ghost-town subdivisions in the Sun Belt.
Starbucks is battling back with two full-page ads in the Sunday New York Times, an appropriate place because few columnists have more frequently referenced Starbucks than Maureen Dowd, Howard Schultz's "good friend". Dowd's wisdom has even appeared on Starbucks coffee cups. She peppers her writings with pop culture references, and often wields the Starbucks brand as a kind of short-hand.
One ad reminds people that Starbucks baristas can "custom build over 87,000 beverage combinations, like superstar architects." That message seems so Dot-com boom, not adapted to a new American reality that makes so much choice look like indulgence and features many out-of-work architects.
The new tagline: "It's not just coffee. It's Starbucks." Which I read as an effort to remind people that their brand embodies a multitude of values that make expensive drinks worth it. For example, they let you hang out in their "third place" all day. Says the ad: "We don't just understand coffee. We cultivate coffee culture. That's why our stores are designed to encourage daydreams, doodling, and general mental downtime with comfy chairs and the soft hiss of the espresso machine as your soundtrack."
It's a fair point: you pay for the furniture and the right to linger, but the pitch might be more attuned if instead of an oasis, they painted Starbucks as the essential place for the unemployed to innovate their way out of the economic crisis — the new suburban garage for entrepreneurs, the office for the networking laptopped severance-pay diaspora who need to think their way out of the recession's box. I don't think grab-and-go McDonald's can compete on that ground.