Traditional Ads Won't Give Starbucks the Jolt It Needs

An Ad Age Editorial

Published on .

Starbucks, probably the most frequently quoted example of a marketing machine built on brand experience and word-of-mouth rather than ad bucks, has launched its first national TV ad campaign. This is one of the clearest signs yet that the java giant has become one of those mass marketers devoid of big ideas to maintain growth in the competitive U.S. market.

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The first ad from the perennially excellent indie, Wieden & Kennedy, is focused on a single product, the coffee chain's Christmas Blend, and comes across as either charming or schmaltzy (depending on whether you like cartoon guys sharing hot beverages with cartoon reindeer). It encourages consumers to buy a second serving in order to pass on a little seasonal love -- or at least warm liquid. It's probably a solid tactic.

But it could've been executed more cheaply, broadly and effectively with an in-store or employee-related effort. Starbucks storefronts garner more eyeballs a day than all the broadcast networks put together.

The bigger point is that the spot doesn't even begin to address the real issues that have caused the company's 1% decline in transactions per store in America. Those issues: The Starbucks brand experience has gone downhill -- long lines, poor service and an unappealing odor of breakfast muffins that drowns out the coffee aroma. Meanwhile, rivals, both chains and independents, have sprung up everywhere offering markedly better experiences that often include free Wi-Fi access -- frequently cited by coffeehouse dwellers as a reason for sticking around.

For Starbucks to continue to grow in such a market it will have to think differently and bigger about its marketing. Not only will it need to take a serious run at addressing the quality of its existing service, but it will have to think about adding new services and maybe even offshoot brands. Some ideas: Starbucks machines, or even more retail outposts, in office complexes; franchised sidewalk carts that cater to people who want a simple cup of joe; full-scale in-store book or magazine sales; even online ordering and delivery. They wouldn't all work, but they're all worthy of consideration.

Howard Schultz needs to go back to the company's brand-experience roots to fix Starbucks, because TV ads will prove a very temporary fix at best and, at worst, a complete waste of money.
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