Unbound Edition. Meaningful conversations about brand, from Davis Brand Capital.

Starbucks @ Work

Starbucks earned the “Best Gift to American Workers” award this holiday season. And we’re not talking caffeine or gift cards.

While corporate America grinched out, laying off staff, refusing to tackle the ballooning unemployment rate and hoarding cash like Ebenezer Scrooge, Starbucks was there: a 21st century Statue of Liberty, opening its arms to the tired, huddled and suddenly office-less masses and their laptops. Day after day it was hard to find a seat in many Starbucks cafes, co-opted as they were by new, uncertain entrepreneurs trying to get a gig off the ground or scanning the Help Wanted listings.

What did Starbucks find in its stocking for that? Not much. It gave and gave, but instead of tying a bow around the many gifts, it sat still, the contribution to recovery (or just sanity) ignored or unappreciated.

Starbucks never owned its role of benevolence in hard times. In contrast, other companies like Levi’s and Jeep aggressively tapped into the post-recession zeitgeist, celebrating the working man and the redeeming power and dignity of making things, and making a difference.

Levi's Work

Jeep Poster

These brands referenced the cultural context and courted the common man, celebrating the personal pride and self-reliance of the American worker, as distinguished from those who were, perhaps, less honorable.

Starbucks, in the meantime, stuck to its knitting – talking coffee but never telling the story of the millions of newly unemployed people crowding their tables and using their electricity in a daily effort to be productive. It missed an enormous opportunity to advance the notion of the Third Space and position the brand as a champion for the country and the American entrepreneurial class, saluting the dignity, will and gumption of American workers.

Starbucks offered more than a new logo, a warm drink and a home away from home. It offered a real, tangible value proposition to a good portion of American consumers — a refuge, a collegial haven and a safe place with a restroom to plunk down and craft nothing less than a survival strategy.

Adding insult to injury, in the absence of a resonant story, competitors stepped up their assault on the price and the “elitism” of a Starbucks cup in tough times.

But America doesn’t run on caffeine and sugar, no matter what Dunkin’ Donuts says. It runs on opportunity and the will to succeed. Starbucks provided the space in which to create opportunity and nurture will. But by focusing on the drinks alone, Starbucks missed a huge opportunity to claim the status of the community member who provided value far greater than the inexpensive black gold poured by Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s.


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