When Starbucks became Starfast


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Margaret was beautiful; David was a promising young writer. They met five years ago in their mid 20’s, fell in love and began living together.

A few months later Margaret started to complain: David was too focused on writing and didn’t spend much time with her; he wrote slow and the income wasn’t enough to support a decent living; he was skinny and wasn’t all that attractive.

David decided to change: He drastically reduced the time spent on research, reading and thinking, and wrote as quickly as possible; he also began hitting the gym with regularity.

For the next two years, David earned much more, became muscular and spent more time with Margaret; she expressed her delight at the changes on a monthly basis.

However, things began to sour in the third year. The attributes of David that Margaret had initially found attractive were gradually evaporating: his laser-focused concentration at work had vanished and his deliverables were no longer outstanding.

Now, in Margaret’s heart of hearts, David isn’t the same person she had admired five years ago. Margaret wanted to be honest with herself: she lost her feelings of affection for the ‘new’ David. She broke up with him and he broke down.

Did David do anything wrong?

1. He put Margaret at the center of his life, listened to her and changed accordingly
2. He got positive feedback (data) from Margaret every month for those changes
3. He split his time (resource) from ‘focusing on work’ to ‘Margaret, work and gym’

What a sad ‘love’ story! It could be a sad ‘brand’ story too.

Just like when a brand is being customer-centric, listens to customers, makes data-driven decisions and tries to satisfy critical needs of their customers. It looks like a perfect role model in CX (customer experience).

However, it might devastate your brand if you forget who you are and what you stand for. For example, when the Starbucks’ experience became fast and efficient – but no longer relaxing and enjoyable – at the expense of the Third Place.

Should customer-centric brands be committed to “Putting The Customer At The Center Of Everything We Do”?

Let me know your thoughts.


  1. I have been a customer of Starbucks for a number of years averaging 2-3 visits per week. I can honestly say that I have never looked at them as my “third place”. I have fully embraced the addition of speed and efficiency because as a customer, that is what I am looking for. To me, being customer centric is looking at all of your customers and providing them with the opportunity to have the experience the way that THEY want to have it. Some customers go to Starbucks to hang out and socialize, some use the atmosphere to work. Others like me want to be able to order and pick up my coffee in a timely manner. So I think that Starbucks is being customer centric… for all their customers.

  2. Hi Tim,

    Thanks for your response.

    Would you mind telling us what drove you to Starbucks before they become faster, and do you visit Starbucks more frequently after they are more efficient?

  3. Hi Sampson, I really began going to Starbucks because my sister was a manager for a number of locations in Chicago. I liked the coffee and the friendly atmosphere when I went into the shops. I actually go less frequent now, but not because their model has changed. We moved into a city neighborhood with a locally owned coffee shop, so I try and support them as well.

  4. Hi Tim,

    Based on your reply, I think it’s fair to say you are neither a loyal nor the target customer of Starbucks.

    Personally, I would regard “Being Customer-Centric to All Customers” is a wrong strategy. Unless your target customers are everyone, you are wasting your company’s limited resources.

    I’d like to add an argument that “Being Yourself” is more important than “Being Customer-Centric.”

    In other words, “Delivering A Branded Experience” (when a brand delivers their brand promise) makes more sense than “Putting The Customer At The Center Of Everything We Do.”

    Your thoughts?

  5. Sampson, I have also worried that Starbuck’s pursuit of fast/efficient service — via mobile orders and pickup in store — could undermine its “third place” brand promise.

    When mobile ordering started (in late 2016 I think) there were some reports of problems. According to one January 2017 article: https://www.businessinsider.com/starbucks-mobile-ordering-problems-2017-1
    “However, the growth of mobile ordering is now also having a measurable, negative impact on sales at the chain. Starbucks reported that transactions, a measure of customer traffic, dropped 2% in the most recent quarter, in large part due to problems caused by mobile ordering.”

    But other reports show that Starbucks worked to resolve logistical problems with the new system. I can’t find any 2018 articles about problems in this area.

    The company thinks digital is the key to growth. “There are 15 million active Starbucks Rewards members, an increase of 13% from last year. Those customers, who use the mobile app to order and pay, tend to be more loyal and have helped boost sales. ”

    I’m not sure what the Starbucks brand promise is anymore. Maybe it’s just “a good cup of coffee, however you want to get it.” For me, it’s still a nice experience when I visit a store. But others care about convenience. Seems Starbucks is doing a pretty good job serving both markets.

    There’s risk in responding to every customer whim. There’s also risk in “being yourself” to the point of missing out on big shifts in the market. Sears and Toys R Us are good examples of failing to adapt. I don’t think Starbucks can afford to ignore what millennials want.

    By the way, Amazon has changed quite dramatically from its early days of just selling books online. What if it had decided that its brand promise was being an online bookstore, instead of “Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company”?

    Strategically, if Starbucks becomes known as just a fast way to get coffee, it opens itself to competition from companies that specialize in speed and price — like Amazon.

  6. Hi Tim,

    I think that like in every sphere of business or our lives it is about balance. Answering the customer needs not necessary means losing what the brand stands for. It should mean adding the value for the customers. In this case: keeping the relaxing atmosphere for these who want it, but not wasting time of the others.

  7. I agree Aleksandra. Customers have the ability and option to use Starbucks the way they want to use them, but when you see the Starbucks logo, I think that people know what it stands for as a company. The work they put into building the brand has paid off. I think if they had stayed with only being the “Third Place” people go, there would be a lot of others in front of them.

  8. Starbucks coffee isn’t actually that good. Their brand promise is still being a destination where people happen to buy and consume coffee. Once you experience Starbucks a few times the novelty wears off. If you like to pay extra for mediocre coffee in a cozy environment then you might become a loyal daily customer. Coffee is addicting but tastes better elsewhere. My suggestion to Starbucks is to make their product higher quality. Getting your fix faster is nice but not compelling for true addicts. Make better coffee and they will come. Making customers the center of everything you do is fine as long as you don’t lose your identity and sacrifice product quality along the way!


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