How Starbucks Strayed

Case Study: Automatic Espresso Machines, Day-Old Food and Plastic Chairs

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CHICAGO ( -- In the wake of the Starbucks "Memo Shot Round the World" from Chairman Howard Shultz on the looming commoditization of its brand, we asked the experts how they would restore the mythical Starbucks Experience.

Illustrations: Felix Sockwell
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Joseph Michelli, author of "The Starbucks Experience: Five Principles for Turning Ordinary into Extraordinary": "They can make sure the sensory experience at Starbucks is rich" by bringing back coffee aromas with fresh grinding and reinforcing the notion of affordable luxury by making sure knowledgeable baristas French-press coffee. It also means nixing plastic chairs and bringing back the living-room feel. "It is all the details of the physical environment."

Seth Godin, author of "Small is the New Big": "They have to bring the audience with them as they move the masses back to authenticity," starting with "fixing the coffee and figuring out how to sell something you can eat." He said the bigger question is: "Should Starbucks be willing to take a short-term stock and market-share hit in order to return to its authenticity?" When it comes to brands, "shareholders, in the long run, are always wrong," he said, adding: "In order to be big, they have to give up stuff."

Mark Gobe, chairman-CEO of Desgrippes Gobe and author of "BrandJam: Humanizing the Brand Through Emotional Design": Starbucks should ask its consumers why they went there in the first place and what is missing now, he said. The chain needs to decide whether it is mass or luxury mass. "Brands have to find their limitations. ... You have to know where you're going to disconnect from consumers."

Bob Goldin, exec VP of food consultant Technomic: "The company needs to better understand how the customer point of view has changed" in the past decade. While he isn't convinced McDonald's will supplant Starbucks as the place for Gen Y consumers to park their laptops on a Saturday night ("That place smells like french fries"), he does agree Starbucks needs to make "significant improvements" to its food program, including managing its ubiquity and push for turning out specialty beverages at a rapid pace.

Larry Wu, VP-consumer strategist food and beverage, Iconoculture: Of all the experts we polled, perhaps Mr. Wu knows the brand best. A former director of research and development for Starbucks, he said, "It used to be about great service, knowledgeable expertise and love of coffee. Now it's about love of profit, margin and growth." He said stores are too small and understaffed: "That's why [baristas] make shortcuts now." The chain "should look at capacity instead of just speed." Finally, he said, Starbucks "should pull back on the food and make coffee the core again."

David Aaker, VP of Prophet and professor of marketing at University of California at Berkeley's Haas School of Business: "This is a portfolio problem. Once you get into supermarkets, it's not easy to pull back." But he said it's possible. "One option would be to create a sub-brand for an upscale Starbucks." It's an idea much like the Hallmark Gold Crown concept, where the chain could create an experience around the original Starbucks for customers who want that level of service vs. the grab-and-go business the company has developed.

Bryant Simon, professor of history and director of American studies at Temple University, who visited 400 locations to research his coming book, "Consuming Starbucks": "There's no reason not to put a semi-automated machine in the drive-thru," and then push its notion of authenticity and coffee theater in its flagship stores. "Give up some of the volume and, like Nike, make it a [showroom] store about coffee."
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