SBUX and me

I’m a quirky consumer.

If I didn’t have to be a consumer, I’d be quirky, period. If I wasn’t quirky, I’d be a plain old consumer.

I know. Self-fulfilling truisms. But they’ve been banging around in my head for a few weeks, and it all came tumbling out for me when I read an article in the Metro about Starbucks. Actually, it was a transcript of what Jim Cramer had to say about SBUX, or so I glean after attempting to summit the highly-unreadable (Note to theStreet: just because you cover finance doesn’t mean you can’t use plain English – and don’t get me started on the evils of linkfarming…)

I digress. The gist of the article is that SBUX is in the middle of a hard business turn-around, similar to what McDonalds has just gone through. Starbucky’s suffered from too rapid expansion, too many outlets in the wrong places, filthy stores, stale menus, disgruntled staff, the whole shebang. Enter Howard Schultz, who is going to turn the ship around and right the course.

Back to me, the quirky consumer. I’ve noticed the changes down here at street level. After all, by my reckoning, SBUX gets between $15 to $20 out of me per week. Maybe that’s about average – I’m guessing it’s a little low for the typical weekly SBUX addict. I usually just get coffee and a reduced fat coffee cake in the morning. I don’t often go for the 3:30 latte or whatever. The quirky bit: I just ask for a simple, dark roast coffee. I’m generally not interested in espresso drinks, unless I’m craving a straight-up shot. But I am interested in their brand, and I study it while listening to smooth jazz-folk and watching privileged people ordering complex beverages. There’s not much else to do.

OK, blindfold test: When I say “Starbucks”, you think of….

Coffee, right?

Right. Because they’ve gone to much trouble to build their brand on “Starbucks Coffee”. It’s on their sign. It’s on their cups. The lattes and cappucinos (and all their variations and descendants) are variations of the key word “coffee”. They are made of coffee. The brand isn’t “Starbucks Cappucino”. It’s “Starbucks Coffee”.

Which brings me to change number one. They’ve decided to standardize on one flavor of urn roast called “Pike’s Place”, which they go to great pains to tell you is roasted monthly in some place like Latrobe, PA. It took a few moments of brand education, but I (who have never been to Seattle) came to discover that there’s a Place in Seattle called Pike. Oh. I get it.

Of course, my poor old eyes deceived me one day early in this new change, and it looked as if the staff had written “Puke Decaf” on the board. Astigmatism is hell.

Let me tell you, to an urn coffee connoisseur like myself, Pike Place is awful. So, I continue to order the “dark roast”, whatever it happens to be that day. I do so at the peril of getting really tired, burnt, grounds-filled coffee, but hey, I’m quirky that way. I want my dark roast coffee.

Which brings me to change number two: Vivanno.

OK, blindfold test number two: when I say, “Vivanno”, you think of….


Right you are, unless you’ve had one, or at least paid attention in your local SBUX store. Vivanno is their new line of Left Coast smoothie-style drinks.

Is that a good reaction? Nothing? Obviously not, from a brand positioning point of view.

Well, what do you expect? Nobody knows what a Vivanno is yet. It’s not a household word. (One will get you ten it never will be.)

Let’s look at this new brand for a sec.

Viv – anno. Year of life, or something like that, in some sort of Latinate kind of way. Or so I would guess. Seems to me that the marketing types sat around the table and threw a bunch of important and European-sounding syllables around until they came up with the right word that satisfied their particular criteria for creating this new product. Viv, as in “filled with life”. Anno, as in “it was invented in Rome!” Cue the orchestra: Viiiii-vanno! Oh-oh-oh-oh!

But this is a “Kleenex-before-it-was-Kleenex” situation here, folks. It’s a smoothie by a smooth name, is all. And there’s nothing inherently “smoothie” about the word “Vivanno”. You’re right though – there’s nothing inherently “tissue” about “Kleenex”, except the phoneme “Kleen” as its root word. You could even argue that “nex” is descended from “nez”, which is “nose” in French, so you’ve got… Clean Nose…

Remember the Nova? No va. “Doesn’t go.”

Vivan no. It won’t live.

My message to Howard Schultz: if you really want to get back to basics and turn your stores around, it’s the coffee, stupid. It’s really awful to stand in line for fifteen minutes at a cramped and understaffed store, watching the bored and overworked baristas go through acrobatics filling complicated menu orders for picky clients, just to get sub par dark roast coffee. Make good coffee, and do something to cheer up the future actors and rock stars that are pouring for you. You’ll go farther and get better results. Just a thought.

Especially since it was that yummy, aromatic dark roast coffee that got me to walk in to the store for the first time, oh those many years ago…