Starbucks' Message Lost on Consumers

Study Finds Most Knew About Closure, but Didn't Know Reasons Behind It

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CHICAGO ( -- Starbucks did a great job of letting consumers know it was closing for three hours last month, but it failed to communicate the most important part -- why. At least that's the conclusion of one new study.
A survey of 1,000 consumers by Aegis Group's research arm Synovate found that 75% of respondents knew of the closure, but less than half knew why.
A survey of 1,000 consumers by Aegis Group's research arm Synovate found that 75% of respondents knew of the closure, but less than half knew why. Credit: AP

On Feb. 25 Starbucks shuttered its shops temporarily to retrain its baristas, but the greater message it wanted to communicate with the PR play was that it is improving the quality of its coffee and bring the chain back to its roots. The media pounced on the story, devoting plenty of column inches, web play and TV time to the news.

So it's not surprising that Aegis Group's research arm Synovate found in a survey of 1,000 consumers that 75% of respondents knew of the closing. What is surprising is that less than half knew why it had closed.

Ed Murphy, VP-U.S. retail and restaurant group at Synovate, attributed this to consumers reading headlines rather than full stories, and said Starbucks was not "driving home" the message of quality and service. "Essentially," he said, the event "had very little impact on the consumer."

Mixed results
Different surveys have shown otherwise. PoliMetrix, a research firm that conducts interviews of 5,000 people about 1,000 brands daily, has said that Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts, which aimed to take advantage of the closure, benefited from positive buzz leading up to and following the events.

Mr. Murphy's team, however, concluded that the three-hour closure had only minimal benefit to competitors. Only one in 10 respondents to the Synovate survey said they had planned to purchase a coffee beverage during the three-hour period of closure. Of those, about 20% chose Dunkin' Donuts for their Joe, or 1% of the total, Synovate found. Dunkin' was offering a 99-cent latte promotion the same day. Of the single percentage that went to Dunkin', 80% said they were likely to come back soon.

Starbucks could not immediately be reached for comment on this story and Dunkin' Donuts did not respond to requests for comment. Following the promotion, however, brand marketing officer Frances Allen did say that Dunkin' Donuts franchisees reported "significantly increased traffic and sales" as a result of the day-long latte discount.

'Pleased' with training
"We are pleased with how the training went," Starbucks spokeswoman Valerie O'Neil said in an e-mail last month following the event. "We believe that the investment made in this training will have a significant impact on our customers' experience. After completing the training, our partners signed a promise to exceed customers' expectations by delivering the perfect drink every time."

Ted Marzilli, senior-VP and general manager-brand group at PoliMetrix, said his company found significant increases in buzz ratings of both Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts since the closure. His organization compiles survey data and scores on a scale from minus 100 to 100. The practicing high for a buzz rating is in the low 40s, generally limited to popular and cutting-edge products such as the iPhone.

Starbucks' buzz rating was hovering in the single-digit range before announcing its closure on Feb. 11. Following the announcement, the rating rose to the teens and stayed there through the first week of March. The fact that it's fallen to 12 was almost inevitable, he said, although the rating is still elevated from last month's level.

Dunkin', on the other hand, has held on to its bump. Dunkin's buzz rating was in the low 20s leading up to the promotion, which catapulted it into the 30s. It was holding steady at 31 yesterday, perhaps a result of the promotion, Mr. Marzilli said, although it has likely been helped along by recent TV advertising.
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