I once jokingly made the comment, “Starbucks is going to become the McDonald’s of coffee”. I don’t think that is too far from the truth now based on recent events. Starbucks recently started promoting “value meals”, a breakfast sandwich and a small latte for $3.95. They also started selling the instant coffee packets called Via for 3 for about $3. This may be part of a strategy to grow sales in response to the economic recession, but at what point does it become commoditization of the brand? You can now get a cup of coffee for less than a dollar, if you buy the Via instant coffee and mix it yourself. Has Starbucks lost sight of their vision to bring the experience of a Italian coffee house to the masses, and sacrificed it to maximize sales? I would argue that Starbucks has been on this path for some time, ever since they replaced hand ground coffee with automatic espresso machines and started with the drive-throughs which made their service more convenient but took away from the experience. That was the turning point where it because less about the Star and more about Bucks. However when you focus too strongly on the bottom line and not enough on customer experience, the brand starts to die and you start looking more like a commodity.
Has Starbucks become a value brand like a WalMart or a McDonald’s? This may not be such a bad strategy when you consider the millions of Americans who have become accustomed (or addicted) to picking up a cup of coffee at the drive through on the way to work. Having a prepared cup of coffee every morning has become more of a need than a want. Starbucks will probably have tons of customers who need their services for many years to come. But, when you sacrifice the quality associated with your brand by becoming ubiquitous or selling your product in a powdered form, you open yourself up to be easily substituted. Is Starbucks that much better than the corner espresso stand where the barista still knows your name? If a Starbucks clone, such as a Caribou Coffee or a Tully’s is convenient, will people still go the extra mile to have Starbucks? One of the major problems with a value focus, rather than a brand focus, is that $4 dollar coffee is rarely a value. Now it’s McDonald’s that is trying to be different from Starbucks with a recent billboard that read “4 Bucks is Dumb”.
Photo by Robert Couse Baker