Starbucks is excellent at what it does, which is not coffee. Under the guise of a purveyor of specialty coffee, this global brand manipulates its employees and miseducates consumers on what specialty coffee is all about.
The company is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, and I just so happened to be at the Denver stop of the Partner World Tour that took place last week at The Grand Hyatt. What is a Partner World Tour? Starbucks refers to its employees as “partners,” since they all hold stock in the corporation. From what I could gather, the tour is an opportunity for Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz to promote his recently released book titled, “Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life Without Losing Its Soul.” That, and to charm the partners in attendance with some inspirational peroration.
My colleague and I were not allowed in to the ballroom where the program took place; the doors where shut on us right after one of the speakers described the coffee that partners would be tasting that day, which was a blend from every growing region on the planet—that made me cringe. It sounded as horrible as the “suicide” soda concoctions I used to make as a kid or how tainted a mix of every type of wine might taste.
Certainly, such an abomination would have never occurred back in the day, when the company was focused on selling coffee and not an image. I’d argue with Mr. Schultz; Starbucks lost its soul over a decade ago—1987 to be exact. Here’s a brief history of how Starbucks grew to be a global brand:
March 29, 1971
First Starbucks opened by Jerry Baldwin, Gordon Bowker and Zev Siegl
Howard Schultz joins Starbucks as Director of Marketing, after discovering the company a year earlier when he was working for Swedish housewares company Hammarplast (Schultz noticed Starbucks was buying a lot of drip brewing thermoses, so he paid them what turned out to be a monumental visit).
Schultz visits Italy and is inspired by the Italian café and espresso (quick brew method that translates from Italian word, “express” and is not actually a type of coffee)
Schultz launches his own coffee company called Il Giornale (named after a newspaper in Milan)
The ownders of Starbucks decide to sell their company
Schultz raises $4 million and takes over Starbucks; hires executives from mainstream businesses like Wendy’s and Taco Bell
Schultz brings in Orin Smith, a financial expert with Harvard Business School pedigree
to be President of Starbucks
June 26, Starbucks goes public
Santa Monica Starbucks are deserted in the afternoons. The solution? Frappuccino debuts in April.
Jerome Conlon joins Starbucks as the first head of “consumer insights” (was Nike’s one man market research department in the eighties and nineties)
Starbucks purchases Hear Music
Interbrand names Starbucks the fourth most effective brand in the world, behind Apple, Google, and Ikea
There’s really no way to sum up Starbucks in a nutshell, but it’s important to recognize the disconnect between what the company convinces people to believe it values (quality coffee) and what its actions imply they really care about (growth as a business).
Let’s call a spade a spade. Starbucks is a corporation that was made and continues to be driven by an absolute genius. You’ve probably heard of him. His name is Howard Schultz and like the father of advertising spin Edward Bernays, Schultz understands the power that emotions have to persuade. Schultz also has a gift for identifying what people are “thirsty” for, and exploits consumers by veiling over-roasted coffee with marketing lingo as seductive as the singing sirens that lured Oedipus off course. That is, marketing lingo that suggests by doing business with Starbucks, you are helping to save the planet, because drinking out of a one use paper cup is—sustainable?
In addition to being a marketing savant, Schultz grew Starbucks from six stores in 1987 to 1,300 stores in 1997—and he did it in a very strategic manner. Besides questionably predatory practices that drove out independent coffeehouses from neighborhoods, the Starbucks real estate development division positioned stores on corners of busy intersections and next to laundry cleaners and video rental stores—where patrons always make two trips (drop-off and pick-up) per transaction.
A lot of people love to hate Starbucks, just because. But you have to keep in mind, they aren’t the first large roasting company to overcompensate with advertising to cover up their lack of an authentically quality coffee bean. Think about how many Americans believe that Maxwell Coffee is good ‘till the last drop or that the best part of waking up is...you know.
There’s no doubt that Starbucks played a key role in paving the way for café culture in America or that they were the one to first provide such an experience to women in cultures where the coffeehouse was traditionally reserved for men only. Starbucks emphasis on experience-focused design is admirable, but their ulterior motive is that of a corporation focused on sales, not quality coffee. I’ve met a number of roasters in the specialty coffee industry who are intentionally staying small, so they can continue to focus on what’s most important to them—coffee beans roasted to perfection.
Small roasters and independently owned coffeehouses are difficult to find, many times because their resources don’t allow them to advertise. The delocator website is one tool to use, but even then, it’s difficult to find a roaster who knows what they are doing and whose coffee matches your flavor profile preference. Ultimately, it comes down to unlearning what Starbucks has miseducated you to believe quality coffee tastes like; being an informed consumer that doesn’t let any corporate money-monger in the coffee industry dupe you into believing that the price you are paying is for quality coffee—not expensive advertising. Yes, coffee is an expensive commodity, but don’t be fooled by the mermaid; there are plenty of better tasting, responsibly sourced coffees in the sea.