What I Learned From Starbucks Last Summer

Or: How to Create a Convert

By Published on .

I used to hate Starbucks.

Not that their coffee was bad. In fact, rather the contrary. I tend to like a slightly toasty taste profile.
Doug Zanger Doug Zanger
Being of Italian descent (my mother's side), I go with a doppio or a trippio shoto with a little foam on top . . . also known as the macchiato. The drink is a bit like my personality, simple yet surprisingly strong.

My fundamental issues were of the stewardship variety. I figured that there was no way that Starbucks could be socially conscious if they are charging close to three dollars or more for coffee. It's that brand of manic global "enthusiasm" that fueled a generation of displaced younger people who found themselves, like me, in Portland, Oregon in the early nineties, revolting from the corporate take-over. As I wore my expensive kangaroo leather indoor soccer shoes and clothes that were manufactured "offshore," I callously stood on the soapbox of virtue, espousing the merits of "buying local." And the service there, I thought, was terrible. I figured that I was better off with an experience that included multiple facial piercings, the overpowering aroma of patchouli and citrus and delightfully aloof employees. At least it was local.

I didn't know it at the time, but I was turning into a "Nordstrom Hippie." Moreover, my perception of Starbucks could not have been more off base.

This past summer, after a fairly prolonged absence from coffee, I begrudgingly made my way into Starbucks. I probably looked like one of those inconsolable people who will never get satisfaction from much of anything. I just felt churlish. I ordered my coffee from a highly pleasant cashier, was presented with my drink by a really nice barista and made my way to my car. Wait. It couldn't be this good. Could it? So I tried again the next day, figuring the law of averages would dictate a less than enjoyable experience. It was even better than the previous day.

What was happening was a phenomenon that took me from displaced and unfounded ire to where I am today . . . borderline psychotic about how much I love Starbucks. To wit, here are some things I have experienced to get me to this place:
  • Consistently pleasant service. Not toothpaste-commercial nice (to steal and paraphrase a line from "A Mighty Wind") . . . but relevant and honest interaction.
  • Remarkable work from Wieden + Kennedy that tells some very good stories about the product and the company. The underappreciated What Makes Coffee Good site gives us just enough to want to know more about this icon that started by selling coffee, tea and spices from a single storefront in Seattle.
  • A texting contest that was engaging . . . and also netted a $5 gift card for my participation.
  • A texting contest where, after a technical glitch dropped 300 text messages into my inbox, the provider responded immediately to my email and remedied the problem.
  • A $5 gift card "thank you" for just being a customer.
  • Recycled coffee grounds that help fertilize our plants.
  • In-store information about growing protocol and practices and community investments, clearly illustrating that it is always about doing the right thing.
What I learned from Starbucks is the importance of diligence and honesty in even the simplest levels of interaction. As a creative director, it can be tempting to dismiss the more mundane because it's not as exciting. Let's face it; a cup of black coffee can be just as good as a double, half-caf, hazelnut, caramel latte, extra hot with no foam.

I've also been reminded that pride in the product and the process are key. Every Starbucks barista I have seen takes tremendous pride in getting everyone the right drink, prepared perfectly . . . and if it's not right, they fix it. (In the spirit of full-disclosure, my wife is still trying to understand why, when after requesting her drink "extra hot," the drink still comes lukewarm and when she asks for it to be hotter, they throw out the drink, cup and all and insist on getting her a new one.) A good campaign or idea is easy to be proud of . . . if it's the result of getting the ingredients and process working well together, then it can taste that much sweeter.

The last thing I was reminded of is that it's easy to smile when you enjoy what you do. On one particularly early morning, as my barista was making my usual, I groaned about being awake at such a ridiculous hour and asked how the heck she could do this every day. The response was joyful, pure and honest, "This job is really fun. And I love Starbucks."

Me too.
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