Last Updated on 19 August 2017

John Moore and I, two former Starbucks marketers, are offering recommendations to Starbucks in response to chairman Howard Schultz’s email. from 2007.

We are examining his third challenge to the team: Loss of Store Soul

“Clearly we have had to streamline store design to gain efficiencies of scale…However, one of the results has been stores that no longer have the soul of the past and reflect a chain of stores vs. the warm feeling of a neighborhood store. Some people even call our stores sterile, cookie cutter, no longer reflecting the passion our partners feel about our coffee.” – Howard Schultz email

Howard expresses concern about stores looking like chain stores and being cookie cutter.

Even Snowflakes Look Alike from a Distance

While there are things Starbucks can do to reduce the cookie-cutter feel, it is a challenge to have 15,000 of anything and not have them begin to look alike.

I’ve come up with three key ideas to help solve this challenge…

  • What’s Mom n’ Pop Got that Starbucks Has Not? – What’s the opposite of a chain store? A Mom n’ Pop cafe. Let’s suggest changes based on the Mom ‘n Pop experience.
  • Stop Being All Things, to All People, at All Stores – Starbucks cafes look very similar because, well… they are. What we can we do re-create the destination Starbucks once was.
  • Chain, Chain, Change – If Starbucks doesn’t like the stigma of the label “chain store” – change the association…

What’s Mom n’ Pop Got that Starbucks Has Not?

If I were working this problem with a client, I would have had each participant do pre-work: Visit a local, quality Mom n’ Pop coffee shop and jot down observations regarding the experience.

The list would read something like this…

  • Friendly staff, one of them was the owner.
  • Nice, but not overly design in the cafe.
  • Artwork featured local artists and/or coffee inspired images. (My local cafe has black and white pictures of celebrities from the 40s and 50s drinking espresso and coffee).
  • Fixtures were old furniture with character vs. “form follows function” equipment. (Condiment bar was an old dresser.)
  • Our beverages were prepared one at a time. They filled the milk pitcher with just enough milk to steam one drink at once.
  • They made “latte art” when they poured the milk and foam into my latte.
  • They gave me a small cookie as a garnish with my drink.
  • The owner brings in fresh flowers each day from the corner florist.
  • They ran out of the freshly baked banana bread. Evidently, you have to get there early to get a piece. (Customers find this a charm of the cafe – like a fresh farmer’s market – the best stuff goes fast and lasts as long as it lasts).
  • More than five people in line ‘slammed’ the barista, customers would walk half way into the store the leave.

It’s interesting what customers consider quirky at a single location translates to annoyance if you have more than one location. When you open more than ONE of a business with the same name on it – whether it is a copy center, dry cleaner, or coffee shop – customers begin to expect consistency.

Using our list as inspiration, below are a couple of ways Starbucks may crumble the cookie-cutter look and feel.

  • Mixed Matched Furniture – Mass-producing condiment stations (the place where you add milk, sugar, etc) with a built in trash-hole and spaces to hold three types of sugar, stir stick and napkins is very practical. Nevertheless, it’s a piece of industrial furniture.
  • Plants and Fresh Flowers – Nearly every Mom and Pop has plant life. Fresh cut flowers in a vase near the cash register or green potted plants dotted through the cafe. Agreed, overgrown plants strung from beaded macramé hangers are not what I have in mind. However, there are clean, tasteful ways to execute this.
  • More Local Artwork – Rely less on standardized company murals and feature local artists work instead. Some Starbucks locations do display local art – let’s make this the rule not the exception. Connect Starbucks with the local art community and everyone benefits.
  • Eliminate Promotional Posters – There are no small or Mom and Pop cafes which post mass-produced product messaging. Occasionally you will find promotional materials provided by the coffee vendor or a specialty bottled drink.

As a former Starbucks marketer who used to be in charge of creating the promotional signage and materials found in-store, I know I’ve just committed Starbucks heresy. But what I also know is that study after study at Starbucks demonstrated that the in-store posters do not drive trial and excitement the way the marketing and product teams hope. The signage is more effective at feeding the ego and comforting the product manager than it actually is at driving sales. (Who doesn’t ponder the effectiveness of the NEW Frappuccino flavor promoted above the urinals or in the ladies restroom?)

Now we have four good reasons to stop creating posters…

    1. They don’t drive meaningful trial and awareness.
    2. They’re expensive to produce for something that’s ineffective.
    3. Reduce use of paper.
    4. They contribute to the cookie cutter look of the stores.

Replace the promotional posters and their frames with more local artwork.

What else could Starbucks consider?

Stop Being All Things, to All People, at All Stores

While Starbucks stores vary somewhat in merchandise offerings and architectural layout based on volume of store traffic (high/low), location (downtown/suburban), and the physical shape of the store space – to the average customer one Starbucks cafe is pretty much like the next.

In the beginning, Starbucks used to be a place you would have to seek out. A place you wanted to get to – a destination. With so many locations – especially in big cities – one cafe is as good as the next. Let’s make the common uncommon by creating Destination Flagship locations. These locations serve as monotony breakers for customers as well as offer Starbucks the chance to re-express their coffee leadership and expertise.

  • Flagship: Whole Bean – THE destination for whole bean expertise
    Features: Expanded whole bean offerings. Exotic coffees while supplies last. Connection with coffee farmers and coffee growing regions. Baristas, who really know, can explain, and demystify coffee. In-store roasting. In-store coffee blending. Regular tasting seminars. Food pairing seminars.
  • Flagship: Brewing – THE destination for at-home brewing expertise.
    Features: Expanded selection of at-home brewing equipment – ranging from simple press-pot, practical coffee maker, to elaborate ‘Starbucks in your home’ installations. Continuous brewing machine demonstrations. Brew the Best Cup at-home classes.

It’s a problem to try to have every Starbucks partner know everything about everything. Flagship locations allow baristas to be certified experts in everything whole bean related and brewing equipment related.

Chain, Chain, Change

While there are still…

  • …towns that host a parade when they get their first Starbucks,
  • …happy travelers pleased to find Starbucks abroad,
  • …double-tall non-fat latte lovers happy to have a store built closer to home or work…

There is a share of people who are “over” Starbucks. What’s the big deal? In some major cities, Starbucks literally is on every corner.

Let’s make it a big deal!

Starbucks is a chain store. No doubt about it. Moreover, Starbucks plans to get bigger. How can Starbucks use their size for good versus “evil?”

Leverage ubiquity.

Starbucks has the size and wherewithal to change the role and impact of chain stores… Starbucks can redefine what quantity represents beyond convenience.

A dream of mine, while at Starbucks, was to build a program where ALL stores would unite efforts in achieving a common community goal. In the same way a new traffic light on a busy street means a safer intersection… A new Starbucks on our block means a better neighborhood and world. In addition to offering a great cup of coffee and a comfy in-store experience, Starbucks, the good neighbor with “big connections,” would help repair what ails our communities.
For example…

  • The homeless will now have the help they need.
  • There will be fewer illiterate children.
  • Teens have better options than drugs or gangs.
  • Another coffee farming town has a new school.
  • Another 100 acres of rain forest are now preserved.

Perhaps those examples are unrealistic, or not the exact problems needing solutions, but I’m certain with focus Starbucks could use size to re-define what “big chain store” means and literally make the world a better place.


What are your thoughts? John will continue this conversation at Brand Autopsy. Share your reactions here; share your reactions there.

Extra Credit Activity: Brief History of Starbucks In-Store Design

Starbucks Pre-Soul
Do you remember, in the late-80s and early 90s, when Starbucks was expanding out of Seattle to Chicago, Vancouver BC, Portland, and LA? There was no such thing as “The Third Place.”

Stores had tall wooden tables and tall stools. Along the windows were stand-up counters. This design was inspired by what Howard experience in Italy and wanted to bring to America, a re-creation of the Italian espresso bar experience. The original idea was to provide “quick, stand-up, to-go service in downtown office locations.”

Back then, stores purposely looked identical to each other. Howard wanted new stores to reflect the warmth and feeling of the original Seattle locations. However, as the number of stores increased from 116 in ’92 to 425 locations in ’94, this single design seemed too cookie-cutter.

Too Much Soul
In the mid-90s the idea of the “Third Place” began to form. Howard describes the Third Place in his book “Pour Your Heart into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time” as “a comfortable, social gathering spot away from home and work, like an extension of the front porch.” Stores were furnished with fireplaces, couches, and “comfy chairs.” However, store development costs were getting out of hand. With plans to more than double store counts in the short-term, and continued aggressive growth in the future, there needed to be a better approach… better design.

Rubber Soul
In ’95 the internal design team addressed the challenge of raising store design to a level beyond the competition, at the same time capturing the essence of the Starbucks experience. This team ended up creating four different sets of design formats. These would provide much more flexibility and design variety from store to store. The details of these design elements was bound in a thick, oversized book. It had an artsy cover and back made of thick rubber – and became known as “The Rubber Book.” It contained the visual vocabulary and all the icons, images, textures, and elements designed to tell the Starbucks story. A piece any designer would love to pour through and would surely drool over. In addition, purchase costs were reduced through planning and bulk-ordering of custom in-store fixtures (tables, seating, blown lamp shades, counter elements). They successfully created design elements, furniture, and fixtures competition couldn’t afford to replicate.

Since early 2000, the in-store design pendulum has swung back and forth… From too visually cluttered, too dark, too expensive, and to Howard’s recent comments about streamlining and efficiencies again contributing to a cookie cutter feel.

Solving Starbucks Problems Series

Here are all the articles in this series:
Issue 1: Loss of Theater
Issue 2: Loss of Coffe Aroma
Issue 3: Loss of Store Soul
Issue 4: Lack of Merchandise Focus
Issue 5: Loss of Identity