Forget the Cute TV Critters; Starbucks Needs a Happy Hour

The Idea Would Do More Than Perk Up Afternoon Business

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The new Starbucks TV spots show strangers -- animal and human -- giving each other coffee. Cute. But in real life, I have never gotten a cup of Starbucks from a stranger, with or without antlers, ever.

So maybe, as its growth starts to slow, what the company needs isn't an ad campaign set in fantasyland (however tastefully executed). Maybe what it needs is a real-world idea that could actually get people to buy and share more coffee: a Starbucks happy hour.

Think about it: It's late afternoon. The post-lunch latte sales have tapered off. All across America, people who crave a little cheer are thinking about going out for a beer. But beer is fattening, and you shouldn't drink and drive anyway. If Starbucks could change our culture once and make us believe "frappuccino" is a word, why can't it try again, this time by convincing us that Starbucks is the place to go after work? (And also that "Barista! Espressos for everyone!" doesn't sound ridiculous.)

"Guys would absolutely love it," says Anand Rakish, editor in chief at RareDaily, a male-oriented website filled with hip bar and restaurant suggestions. "People are already looking at each other at Starbucks and trying to chat each other up. I see it all the time. So push the envelope a little more, and Starbucks can create a really social environment that no one else can replicate."

Karrie Heartlein, a coffeehouse aficionado and publicist at Knox College, asks, "Why not go one step further?" She'd give the happy hours different themes: Mondays for moms, Wednesdays for marketing execs, whatever, "so folks can socialize with a purpose."

To bridge the gap between bar and cafe culture, Starbucks could even serve special happy-hour coffees that echoed real drinks, by spiking them with rum- or KahlĂșa-flavored, nonalcoholic syrups. And at least some of the drinks could be twofers, to encourage that whole giving thing.

The bigger idea, however, would be not just to perk up afternoon business but to perk up Starbucks, period. Make it fun again! A cool place to go! A pleasure, as opposed to an addiction.

Starbucks originally enthralled us not by selling overpriced caffeine but by giving us an intensely indulgent experience. It delighted all five senses, says marketing consultant Tim Halloran at Brand Illumination: "smell (the aroma of the coffee); taste (the coffee itself); hearing (the grinding of the coffee and the music in the background); sight (the unique look of the stores); and touch (the smooth tables, wood grain, etc.)." But now that you can get Starbucks at a drive-through window or airport kiosk, a lot of those sensations are missing. As the brand grew, the experience shrank.

My local Starbucks became increasingly dreary as its coffee smell was replaced by an acrid stench in the mornings, the result (I guess) of eggs being recooked in some kind of heating device. (Or maybe someone really is toasting their sneakers.) Meantime, the place is as crammed as any Kmart with tacky little gifts, and the baristas are competent but nothing more. They're not creating new drinks; they're not hand-drawing the fake-hand-drawn signs; and as far as I know, they're not even choosing the music.

The pastries, too, are less than compelling. Heartlein calls them "airplane food" and wonders why Starbucks doesn't really break out of the McDonald's mold and buy from local bakeries. That way the goodies would be delicious, surprising and even politically correct: Think global, buy local.

A happy hour with new drinks, new prices and new treats would bring in new business. But more importantly, it would bring back an old friend: the Starbucks we knew and loved.
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