Visiting Starbucks in the Beacon South Quarter, Dublin on Friday afternoon, I was disgusted to see every empty table in the place littered with the debris of half-empty cups, discarded wrappers and, in many cases, unfinished muffins and sandwiches. A number of the upholstered chairs were spoiled by ingrained crumbs and pieces of sandwich filling and arriving customers were obliged to clear a table and wipe down the seats before enjoying their own coffee. At the table next to mine, a guy spilt left-over coffee on his laptop as he tried to make space amongst the rubbish.
What a far cry from the cool and comfortable 'third place' that Starbucks likes to sell to coffee-lovers worldwide. And what a slap in the face for both its customers and those of us who are in the business of building brands.
As it happens, I had just finished reading a short article from Warren Baxter of Vancouver-based Karo on Building Your Brand In A Recession and I was forcibly struck at how Starbucks was spitting on each of the brand guidelines offered by the author:
- Stick to your long-term goals: It seemed that Starbucks had reacted to the downturn by cutting down on staff (I only spotted one person behind the counter during my visit) and had abandoned its objective to be the "most recognised and respected brand in the world."
- Be authentic: Even neighbourhood coffee-shops with little time or money for branding get that being true to your offer involves a little cleanliness and respect for the customer.
- Maintain or increase your marketing budget: We're reminded by marketing experts everywhere how 'marketing is everything and everything is marketing.' What kind of impression does a filthy store leave in the mind of its customers?
- Think beyond advertising: Starbucks continues to display witty and attractive posters bragging about its excellence but clearly hasn't thought much beyond those images when planning the day-to-day operations in its stores.
- Deliver on your brand promises: I don't recall being promised a filthy environment and I certainly wasn't delivered a third place where I might feel "a sense of belonging...a haven, a break from the worries outside." Instead, I found myself irritated at the likelihood I'd end up with chocolate-chip stains on my trousers when I sat on one of the grubby chairs.
I've said in a previous post back in 2008 how "I saw much to admire in the business philosophy and practices of a hardworking and thoughtful enterprise" but noted in the same piece how disappointed I was at how a 'dishevelled' Starbucks had translated the international experience of the brand to its stores in Ireland.
Judging from my infrequent visits to their stores since then (I always choose an alternative if I can help it), it seems that Starbucks continues to ignore even the basic principles of hygiene that underpin any coffee-shop offer to market, whether branded or unbranded.
For this customer and brand-builder, the Starbucks' local blend continues to leave a bitter taste in the mouth.