Brands aspire to elevate people to a positive emotional state. But the word brand itself is cold, distant, transactional. It’s the people with the logo on their shirt that make or break it. The bright people in the corporate office define it through research and slick presentations, but it doesn’t mean anything if the teenager in the apron (with the logo) doesn’t get it.
I’ve been with Starbucks for 18 years now, this fall. I started in the stores, moved to the office, left for a stint in France, then came back in 1998. They had just installed Microsoft Outlook when I returned: previous to that, scheduling meetings was really hard. You had to call everyone to ask when they were available.
I rode the gravy train through the early 2000’s, as Frappuccino got bigger and bigger. We called them line extensions: new flavors, inclusions, syrups, cute names like Rhumba.
Even after 9/11, the business was still growing. It seemed people needed some small comfort or indulgence, still. They liked the atmosphere, what we called “the third place,” where you go outside of home, or work.
Around 2007, Starbucks went astray for a variety of reasons, but got back on track somehow. The company got too full of itself, too far ahead of the competition, out of touch with its customers. The biggest fear was getting too big: becoming Corporate. It’s a fine line to walk.
Back in 2000, we got a new communications manager in our group. She came from The Body Shop in Canada, and wanted to imbue more culture into the communications we sent to our stores.
We went to our Creative Studio and briefed them on what we wanted. They came back with a couple names for our newsletter: one was The Scoop, and the other, The Filter. The designer had an eastern European accent, and favored The Filter because it was dark and edgy. We went with The Scoop.
It was a good idea, but it didn’t work. The stores couldn’t untangle what was really important in the content versus the nice stuff. We tried to personalize some of our executives through short interviews, alongside more actionable stories about ordering replacement signs for pastries, or remembering to process payroll on time.
The Scoop got replaced by action items on our Portal: blurbs in terse verse with bullet points, and no B.S. The stores were fast-paced and the managers, overburdened already. No one had time for human interest stories.
One of the executives I interviewed coined a phrase, Just Say Yes. His theory was that people grow up being told “no” as kids — and when they get their first job, saying no is a form of control or authority, over customers. He wanted employees to feel empowered to do the right thing: you didn’t have to check with a supervisor, you were empowered to take matters into your own hands, with a customer who was upset or unsatisfied.
We were a much smaller company then. We had books of free beverage coupons we gave to stores for customer recovery situations. In some cases, we kept them in safes — more often, they were readily accessible by the cash register, sometimes handed out in wads to whomever.
None of that matters, now. The intent is what endured, the spirit of lifting the average employee with the authority to do something positive. It’s smart. Brands don’t grow from people following company policy to a tee; they grow from people delivering on a promise to other people.
I’d keep going to work there if we stopped selling coffee and sold used tires, instead. I like the product, but it’s the people that make it.
People don’t care about brands, they care about people.