“The Commoditization of the Starbucks Experience” – Soul Searching by Howard Schultz

Devangshu Dutta

April 20, 2007

A few weeks ago there was an immense buzz about an email that was apparently leaked from Starbucks. Chairman Howard Schultz apparently had written this to CEO Jim Donald, and there was immense speculation about whether it was fake or a genuine leak.

Well, Starbucks itself put that mystery to rest by confirming the e-mail’s authenticity, and that makes it even more interesting. The soul-searching shared by Schultz in the memo, reflects the criticism that Starbucks has faced in recent years.

As a pioneer of “the third place” experience, it must be especially painful for Schultz to admit that the quality of experience now is below what the consumer would (or should) expect. In the quest for scale and efficiency, he says:

“…we have had to make a series of decisions that have lead to the watering down of the Starbucks experience, and, what some might call the commoditization of our brand.”


He acknowledges ownership for the decisions, which he says…

“…were probably right at the time, and on their own merit would not have created the dilution of the experience; but in this case, the sum is unfortunately much more damaging than the individual pieces.”


As a brand with over 13,000 locations, clearly Starbucks needs to be able to work with a model which is consistent across locations, can be implemented quickly, and delivers the product quickly and at controlled costs. Automation and packaging are two major areas that have given it that capability, but have also become the weak point of the experience from the perspective of coffee connoisseurs, or even people who would just enjoy a “rich and personal” experience.

Schultz quotes some specific cases that are especially powerful illustrators of what is right AND wrong with the business model.

“…when we went to automatic espresso machines, we solved a major problem in terms of speed of service and efficiency but removed much of the romance and theatre that was in play with the use of the La Marzocca machines. This specific became even more damaging when the height of the machines, which are now in thousands of stores, blocked the visual sight line the customer previously had to watch the drink being made, and for the intimate experience with the barista.”


Clearly the automatic machines improve the consistency of coffee delivered in each cup of Starbucks, and also reduce time the customer waits (a huge issue in many of the stores where peak-hour traffic can result in customer queues right to the door). But it is that much more generic an experience. And one would imagine that the barista behind the counter is also just that bit less involved (dare we say, less passionate) about the cup.

Creating a process (and better still, automating it) reduces the dependency on individual skill in any business, and is a strategy followed by all businesses that want to scale up without losing quality. However, an experience that is supposed to be “personal” and unique, needs to retain the human touch to a far greater degree.

Schultz talks about moving to flavour-locked packaging – again a great decision to retain the quality of the product across the chain of stores, while creating an efficient supply chain from procurement, through roasting, bagging and shipment to stores. Each of the outlets receive the coffee with a optimal shelf life left in the product. However, as Schultz says,

“…I believe we overlooked the cause and the affect of flavour lock in our stores. We achieved fresh roasted bagged coffee, but at what cost? The loss of aroma — perhaps the most powerful non-verbal signal we had in our stores; the loss of our people scooping fresh coffee from the bins and grinding it fresh in front of the customer, and once again stripping the store of tradition and our heritage?”


When Schultz took over Starbucks there were hardly any significant competitors – it was either personalised, neighbourhood cafes or fast food joints serving low-grade motor oil masquerading as a beverage. The product itself that Schultz wanted to sell was not just the coffee, but the possibility of someone having a beverage in a relaxed environment outside home or a bar.

Today, Starbucks has itself upgraded the customer’s tastes and expectations, but risks losing that product leadership to smaller competitors, even as the fast food chains are improving the coffee that is served on the go, at prices often cheaper than Starbucks, and also as other “third place” options emerge.

It is the closing of the memo that shows a ray of light…

“…we desperately need to realize it’s time to get back to the core and make the changes necessary to evoke the heritage, the tradition, and the passion that we all have for the true Starbucks experience. I have said for 20 years that our success is not an entitlement and now it’s proving to be a reality…Let’s get back to the core. Push for innovation and do the things necessary to once again differentiate Starbucks from all others. We source and buy the highest quality coffee. We have built the most trusted brand in coffee in the world, and we have an enormous responsibility to both the people who have come before us and 150,000 partners and their families who are relying on our stewardship.”


From reactions from various quarters, it seems that a lot of people not only agree with Schultz, but also admire him for his frank assessment of Starbucks’ weakening brand leadership and authenticity. When the leadership is honest with itself, there must be hope for the brand and the company.

An acquaintance who works with Starbucks expressed it eloquently when she identified the challenge of “staying small, while growing big” and said, “I’m glad our leadership hasn’t forgotten the qualities that have made us who we are.”

Starbucks remains a market leader by far, in terms of retail footprint worldwide and can only grow stronger by sorting out these issues which are at the core of the business.