Starbucks has a G.M. moment

Judging by its latest ad campaign, Starbucks is losing touch with its customers, just as G.M. did. So here's a suggestion to turn the coffee giant around.
Crosscut archive image.

Starbucks' new-old logo (right)

Judging by its latest ad campaign, Starbucks is losing touch with its customers, just as G.M. did. So here's a suggestion to turn the coffee giant around.

Full disclosure: I've gone to Starbucks at least twice a day pretty much forever. Two tall drips in grande cups with a little bit of nonfat milk sets me back about $3.74 or just shy of a grand a year. For a treat I'll trek to Stumptown, Umbria, Vivace, or Verite and savor the taste and the time in a way I never do at Starbucks. In my head — and in reality — the two experiences are completely different.

Starbucks' latest ad campaign attempts to convince us otherwise and fails. Instead, one wonders if we're witnessing a "GM Moment" in the history of the coffee leviathan.

Were it possible to go back in time and find the precise moment where cracks first appeared in General Motors' relationship to its own customers, the instant where the world darted but the company weaved, perhaps it was something like the ad campaign we're seeing from Starbucks right now.

The ads proclaim Starbucks' exceptionalism. Among them: "If your coffee isn't perfect, we'll remake it; if it still isn't perfect, you must not be in a Starbucks."

This is marketing overreach. Try to convince your customers that you are something everyone knows you're not and you start down the slippery slope of corporate self-delusion. Starbucks' defensive campaign is pleading, snarky, and ultimately off-putting. Once a company gets to the point of positioning the customer as the problem, ("They just don't understand us!" "Other people have gone to school on us!") it might not appreciate how much market share is evaporating until it sees the vapors in its rear view mirror. Ask the General about that. (Pontiac Aztek, anyone?)

Very few people go to Starbucks for the perfect cup of coffee. Vast hordes of people go to Starbucks for coffee that is good enough, fast enough, hot enough, and close-by-enough to get through the rest of the day.

If Starbucks wants to be truly in tune with the times and the temper of its customers, it should take a stab at a new product that gets the zeitgeist right: "The StarBuck." A one-dollar cup of smooth drip, tax included. Available every day until the Dow hits 10,000 again.

A good basic cup of coffee at a great price would pull students from the indies and cause pickup trucks to veer away from McDonald's often enough to boost Starbucks' traffic — along with the chances of selling some add-on stuff. Four-dollar diehards will still order their froofy coffees because they love 'em. And if they can't afford them any more they'll still come for the StarBuck instead of stopping altogether. It it's good enough, cheap enough, and fast enough, gosh darnit, people will drink it. Even people who would have never dreamed of being caught in a Starbucks before.

Having hipster baristas on YouTube telling the "truth" about the "myth of four dollar coffee" won't change minds much less actual coffee habits.

Any minute now Starbucks will have more employees (172,000 and presumably going up) than General Motors (235,000 and definitely going down). Starbucks makes money; GM doesn't and won't anytime soon. But the trajectory of Starbucks' earnings isn't reassuring and the tone-deaf ad campaign will likely have zero impact on those numbers.

A Starbucks store may count as a fancy coffee joint — but it's one of sixteen thousand such fancy joints. Truth is, Starbucks are more useful than they are special. And there's nothing wrong with that.

The company isn't likely to win or keep any more customers just by nagging us about how we just don't get it.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Matt A. Fikse

Matt A. Fikse

Matt Fikse-Verkerk (Twitter: @mattfikse) covered urban affairs, politics, tech, and business at Crosscut from 2009 to 2014. He lives in Seattle and works for a biotechnology firm in Redmond, WA.