Varied background a boon for Starbucks

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Two and a half weeks into Cynthia Vahlkamp's new job as exec VP-chief marketing officer for Seattle-based Starbucks Corp., the area suffered a magnitude-6.8 earthquake. Ms. Vahlkamp was meeting with a staffer at that moment in February, but luckily, she was conducting it by phone from Chicago.

The 46-year-old St. Louis native has thrived on shakier ground, bouncing between on- and offline jobs. After nine years marketing food with Quaker Oats Co., Ms. Vahlkamp in February 1996 answered the call of the Internet to take the senior VP-marketing of online services job for CompuServe. That October, she joined Sunbeam Corp. to market the company's outdoor cooking products. There she launched the GrillMaster brand's first integrated marketing program. Her leadership on the launch of the outdoor grills won an American Culinary Institute gold award.

JOINS HARDWARE.COM

But she was once again enticed by the Internet and joined home improvement Web site Hardware.com, a start-up that launched in October 1999 and soon ran out of money. After a stint as a consultant, she joined Starbucks.

"I've got a lot of experience in breakfast," Ms. Vahlkamp says. "My head and heart are in the food and beverage business."

While she says it's premature to discuss specific strategies in the coffee chain's global growth plan, the executive explains she'll be working to make Starbucks the most-preferred brand in its category.

CITES TRIBAL KNOWLEDGE

"Now it's just the most-known brand," she says. "There's strategic work to be done, and we need to define the essence of the Starbucks brand with our tribal knowledge of the customer experience."

"She really strikes me as smart, sharp, insightful and creative," says David Lubars, chief creative officer at Publicis Group's Fallon, Minneapolis, which handles Starbucks. "It seems in her past positions she's been very good at integrating and cross-selling."

Ms. Vahlkamp also is examining the chain's dependence on the morning coffee habit. "We think there's a lot of room for growth in coffee and more room to pair coffee with food," she says. "Our customers are part of current consumer behavior to have coffee breaks in the afternoon. We have a lot of work to do to make afternoons interesting even in our current format."

To do that, she'll rely on her early training at package-goods marketers General Foods Corp. and Quaker. One of the things Ms. Vahlkamp learned in packaged goods was to help make sick businesses healthier after they've been over-tweaked from their core business proposition. Although Starbucks is far from a sick business, she says that experience helps her focus on what is "the core proposition" of the Starbucks brand and "make sure we're at the heart of that and never let go."

With her blended academic training in economics, Chinese and international affairs, Ms. Vahlkamp is equally suited to understanding the global rituals of coffee. Her experience likely will come in handy as Starbucks expands overseas, where coffee connoisseurs smirk at America's relative inexperience with the aromatic drink.

"Diversity is a great asset in building a robust marketing proposition," she says. "It's important not to be Seattle-centric when it comes to Starbucks' brand."

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