Starbucks’ Barista Break: Buzz Kill or Buzz Marketing?

March 12th, 2008

Quick.  How much time would you need to retrain and reenergize 135,000 employees in 7,100 stores across the country.  How about three hours?  That’s all the time Starbucks Chair and CEO Howard Shultz needed to take a major step in renewing the romance and theatre of the Starbucks experience.  The step reportedly cost the ubiquitous chain two to four million in lost sales for the day, and gave Mickey D’s and Dunkin Donuts a tiny window to poach Starbucks’ stalwarts . But it also generated tens of millions of dollars in worldwide exposure and publicity – all on message.    But what was the actual return on investment?   Was it just a savvy marketing event or a true brand gesture from a leader that cares?

For about 120 minutes, servers were reminded how to draw the perfect cup of joe while they were infused with caffeinated messages from their great leader of the latte’.  Like a scene from Apple’s famous 1984 commercial, I pictured thousands of the store’s employees — all dressed alike in black tops, green aprons and Starbucks caps — watching a videotaped message from Mr. Schultz.  The head and shoulders of Shultz filling the screen as he reiterated points from the well-publicized memorandum he wrote in February 2007 – the Howard Schultz Transformation Agenda Communication #8.   “This is not about training,” he said to his employees, looking directly at the camera. “This is about the love and compassion and commitment that we all need to have for the customer.   We are passionate about our coffee. And we will revisit our standards of quality that are the foundation for the trust that our customers have in our coffee and in all of us.”

A handout labeled “Espresso Excellence” informed them that “without aeration, the milk screams and lacks sweetness.” And: “The perfect milk requires surfing the tip of the steam wand until the sound is SSHHHH.”

The media covered the event as breaking news:

-Seattle Post-Intelligencer: Starbucks made a promise. Do you believe it?

-Washington Post: Espresso Yourself: Starbucks Takes a Break

-MSNBC: Starbucks To Close All Stores for Three Hours

-NY Times: Starbucks Takes a 3-Hour Coffee Break

Steven Colbert dedicated an entire skit to how he was forced to deal without his favorite addiction.

While survey results conducted days after the event showed that less than half of customers polled knew what the closure was actually for, it seems to have accomplished the job of juicing up the baristas.  That should trickle down to customers eventually.  “We are pleased with how the training went,” Starbucks spokeswoman Valerie O’Neil said in an e-mail last month following the event.   “After completing the training, our partners signed a promise to exceed customers’ expectations by delivering the perfect drink every time.”

I see it as a win – not just for the marketing bump, but for the goose bump or two that employees got during that three hours.  Starbucks is not alone in recognizing that employee engagement is an important business driver.  Research tells us that a CEO needs to do or say something a minimum of six times before employees will even begin to take notice.  And actions always speak louder than words, emails, or memos.  While scores of business books will tell you cost cutting is the way to the top, I raise my paper cup to Starbucks.  Howard, you not only taught America the difference between good and bad coffee; you are teaching CEO’s everywhere the difference between empty corporate gestures, and steaming cups of corporate commitment to a brand.

Posted Under: Media & Journalism, Public Relations
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