I wrote my previous Bare Barista Threads post last week to tell the love story of sorts I have with Starbucks, from the enticing romantic notion of creating the "Third Place" three years ago to the current white knight meets revival effect on my contentment and joy. But like all great love affairs, the protagonist and antagonist are not always separate entities and happily-ever-after isn't as consistently harmonious as one would believe. Building a company on the principles Starbucks holds true is one thing; it's not a "once and done" model but a ceaseless art form to maintain- to nurture- for years to come. I'm not ready, and I dare say I don't think the world is ready, to see us come this far just to lose our soul.
For my graduate class discussion every week, I can't help but tie in what I've learned and loved about Starbucks to every single element of strategic marketing that comes up: value proposition, long-term customer relationship management, dynamic pricing, etc. This pattern of mine is not unlike my undergraduate experience; I see no implication of this passion of mine changing in a way that will keep me quiet on the matter anytime soon, if ever. Recently, this statement came up in a video about Goodwill Industries:
“Ultimately, they operate more like a Target than a thrift store. And when you think about it, they have to [innovate]. Because their mission is more than just making a profit.”
This simple bit of narration in the video really rubbed me the wrong way. Sure, Goodwill is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, but their mission statement and business model are closely replicated in the private, for-profit sector. Because, as I cannot stress enough, profits and human decency are not mutually exclusive. Just like Goodwill needs to keep their programs afloat through sales, Starbucks, Target, and pretty much all other stores need to secure revenue, for both their shareholder's and their employees alike. Further, holding a job you can grow in is also a strong player in career development- especially when holding that job 20 hours a week qualifies you for full reimbursement on your first bachelor's degree every semester. So in all reality, even for-profit businesses have a stake in doing more than making profit.
Consumers are not concerned with helping a business meet their bottom line but how their product/service will be of value to them. Marketers busy themselves with understanding what will enrich the lives of their customer and how to ensure their target market is aware of such. When this is done well, fully realizing and utilizing knowledge of internal and external factors, goals are met. But when you miss something, performance suffers and a ripple effect permeates the entire organization. And then the market and beyond (more on this later).
It was late last spring when things got rocky between me and Starbucks- and every other partner in the United States. If you are a Starbucks customer, “regular” or casual, you may have noticed a shift in the experience in the stores during the since then. Lines are longer, drive-thru times are up, cleanliness is neglected, and you’ve probably gotten the stressed grimaces of your barista more than the expected warm smile and friendly banter.
Though Starbucks is consistently recognized as one of, if not the, most ethical company on the planet by the Ethisphere Institute and other organizations, partners felt as if they were the severely neglected pawns of yet another a greedy, dismissive megacorporation. In spite of our best performance yet early this year, we fell short of the revenue expectations. I remember being completely underwhelmed by our sales volume during our Frappuccino Happy Hour in May and the snide comments made by my “tall coffee” regulars about the change in the loyalty program in April. How corporate responded took me completely by surprise: labor practices were changed in a way that intentionally severely understaffed stores, resulting in the consequences felt by customers mentioned earlier.
This created a major cut in individual hours for most baristas and shift supervisors across the country, leaving many struggling to make ends meet and worrying about losing benefits as well. We felt the blow of something we could not control and had only a minute influence of and responsibility for. Petitions were drafted, barista blogs went viral, Buzzfeed got ahold of the story- then our CEO, Howard Schultz, made a personal call to the barista behind the petition. He promised to “make it right”- the language we use at the store level when it comes to our commitment to a perfectly crafted drink.
Now, you may start to notice a rainbow forming at Starbucks, as baristas can now have colorful hair and our dress code is incredibly liberalized from just black pants or khakis and a white or black shirt and several nit-picky rules. Beyond the surface level, I hope our customers are starting to feel the improvements as we are. Everything is not back in order as far as morale, hours, etc., but it is obvious they are getting better. Howie is, in fact, making it right. Starbucks is making it easier to pick up shifts, giving a generous bonus to tenured partners of 2 years, and raising wages (again and more). The staffing policies haven't seemed to change, but I can see how everyone, from my shifts and store manager to Howie himself are scrambling to make sure we get the hours and benefits we need.
I tell this story to explain a first hand account of the potential consequences of non-optimal marketing strategies. The marketing decision makers and implementers in Seattle let their partners down, to be completely honest. We, baristas, are still reeling from the financial impact in our paychecks and tips but corporate employees have a salary and do not feel the consequences of their work the way we do. However, we can prosper when Starbucks profits. In one of his books “Pour Your Heart Into It”, Howard Schultz makes this statement:
Starbucks’ marketers steered off course and in the process left hundreds of thousands of us behind.
Just like Goodwill, Starbucks has to. Their mission is more than about making profit. They have to do something right before they can make profit and often the right thing changes.
One of the values of the Starbucks mission statement addresses this concept perfectly and is becoming a mantra of mine: Delivering our very best in all we do, holding ourselves accountable for results.
Society recognizes certain careers as more noble, vital, or impactful than others. Most see doctors, nurses, teachers, politicians, etc. in this light, but I've come to see marketing professionals in this way. What we do and how we do it impacts society, real individuals, through markets on a large scale- more so than any other profession. I'm sure most people in marketing don't view their work as a moral calling as I do, but approaching it in this way, in a way that is sustainable and problem-solving for many, is statistically lucrative. Your customers- a company’s life blood- are neglected when your employees are overlooked as mere human capital, marginal costs. When it comes right down to it, we are pawns in their games.
Pouring my heart (blood, sweat, and tears) into cultivating my customer service ability and coffee craftsmanship is a robust approach to a successful company, but the real striking power moves are completely and totally out of my hands- for the moment. We can uphold the brand and culture of Starbucks, but my smile and latte art isn't going to keep this ship afloat and on course if the marketing team is not designing loyalty programs or implementing ad campaigns that will lead to mass satisfaction. Or if the number of baristas we have covering each shift are not humanly capable of completing our production and cleaning task lists while getting several dozen (to hundreds) of transactions completed each hour in a warm, welcoming, "lean" manner. If you take away the sails of your trade ship, your profits drown with the crew.
I didn't answer the call of the Siren to be in the coffee business, but to be in the business of people and sell coffee.
Though the top-down mistakes made this year deeply hurt me and left our customers less than delighted, I see this era for Starbucks as a wake-up call of how much their values actually add value to the company and not the end. In his letter to us this summer, Howie wrote "striking the delicate balance between profit and a social conscience is a responsibility I take personally". I believe his sentiment wholeheartedly and this clearly demonstrates the character this man holds that makes me love him so, but I have to disagree the "balance" is "delicate"-- being profit-driven without social conscience is not how Starbucks came to such fruition and is not how we will keep this company alive.
So dear, sweet Howie, please never forget that Starbucks does not get to be socially conscience because it profits. Because we are socially conscience, we can continue to profit and prosper together. Your partners know our worth and still believe in all of this, but we can find love again if we continue to be forgotten.
I trust you. It's not over yet.
(formerly "Bare Barista Threads" and "Memoirs of a Pizza Girl")
With a year of delivering pizza, two and a half years as a barista, and some more time in the trenches, I have plenty of stories, thoughts, and musings. The days that threatened to break me all the while built me. I want to help others in my profession view their work as an opportunity, too. This is my soap box.