Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Why Starbucks’ Tribute Misses the Mark

When I was in middle school, there was one girl's house where everybody hung out. After school, on Sabbath ("Shabbos"), during high school and after, probably, too.


I wasn't usually part of her clique. But I remember wistfully looking out the living room window on Saturdays and watching everyone head over there. Not right after synagogue - usually in the early afternoon. The few times I visited there too, I could tell why her house was "the" place. It just had that vibe, like whoever you were, whatever you were into, it was OK.


Once a place is known as a hangout, it's a hangout for good. Even if it's only in the mind. Even if it's really just a shanty place, overgrown with weeds.


Same with my grandparent's house – on my mother's side. It was a regular hangout for me, during summers and on Jewish holidays, especially Pesach (Passover), every other year.


I remember that house more than I remember the one I grew up in. I have memorized it in my mind, down to the finest detail.


It's funny. My grandparents had hung a framed pencil sketch of my great-grandfather, may he rest in peace, Rabbi David Garfinkel ("Reb Dovid"), on the wall of the living room. Reb Dovid was well-known, people came to see him. He was quiet and pious and brilliant.


I never met Reb Dovid. I didn't know what he looked like. And until I was a young teenager – I am not kidding when I tell you this – I thought that framed picture was a sketch of G-d himself. (Yes, I thought that G-d was a man and that of course He must be a rabbi. Of course! What can I tell you, I was a kid.)


My grandparents' house, may they rest in peace, was the hangout for my family. The aunts, the uncles, the parents, the grandparents.  They were raised there, visited from college there, brought their eventual mates home to meet my grandparents, stayed for Jewish holidays, and then brought the grandkids. And nursed my grandparents when they were too old to take care of everybody running around.


My grandmother Muriel (a real New York beauty queen from the Bronx – she won a pageant, for real) used to make Shabbos meals out of almost nothing. She cooked peas and mushrooms with brown sugar. Salt and pepper kugel (that's like a noodle casserole) fried in oil in a cast iron pot. Ground boiled eggs and liver together, which sounds truly disgusting, but it was delicious.  Homemade salad dressing. And chulent with the marrow bone.


We used to run home from shul (synagogue) to eat. And then fight over who would get the marrow bone. (It was a real fight let me tell you.)


My family hung out at my grandparents' house and we sat and ate my grandmothers' roast chicken. A warm, homey scene. A place full of love and lively discussions and the usual family "scenes," that became engraved indelibly in my heart.


My grandparents' home was a hangout. Like the house of that girl in middle school. Everyone was welcome, no matter who they were or what their philosophical viewpoint. And I never found another one like it as an adult.


Talk about viewpoints: Oh the discussions we had at the Sabbath table. I especially remember learning feminism at the knee of my aunt Renee, the first woman in the family to get a Ph.D. I don't know what she used to argue about with my straitlaced, traditional, Hasidically raised dad. But oh did I love watching them "discuss" things while everybody else took sides. Sometimes just for the hell of it.


Those conversations seemed to go on forever. Sometimes after I ate and had argued enough I would get up and sit on the loveseat they had placed along the wall next to the dining room table. It was a white couch with red flowers. To me it was beautiful. I sat there and watched them all. Disagreeing about everything. Driving each other crazy. Passing the time on Shabbos, when we weren't allowed to drive or use electricity. Love, amusement, and warmth carried the day.


When we visited my grandparents, I wanted to stay there forever. It's actually hard to write this and not start crying. (OK, so I just did.) I miss my grandparents' place. I especially miss my grandmother calling out to me hello when we pulled up to the driveway after a long ride there. I used to run up to the steps and run in. We weren't a "touchy" family – we were actually quite reserved and disliked showy shows of love – and I didn't hug her. But I was so reassured at the sight of her, and the sound of her calling my name.


What is the point of all of this? Believe me there is a point…because most of what I know about marketing, I know from personal experience.


The point is Starbucks. How they truly, right now, are missing the mark. How they don't understand their true brand essence – which is to be a hangout for Generation X and then only secondarily Matures, Boomers, Yers and Generation Z. (If they have the patience to sit, that is.)


It's not about the coffee. Repeat: It's not about the coffee.


I was in Starbucks today tasting the new "Tribute" blend.  It was OK. I wasn't all that in love with it. I didn't really care about the signs on the wall offering free "Petites" or whatever their mini-pastries are. Maybe they're going to take away my Gold Card or something, but if that's what they're using to cushion the rollout of the new mermaid logo, it didn't really do anything for me.


I realized that the reason I keep going to Starbucks, even though I'm sick of it and only like the memory of the brand now, is that I love the idea of "my hangout." I don't need it to be my grandparents' house – that was its own special place and time. But I have always enjoyed that "third place." Be it the tent I used to build in the living room out of a sheet draped over two chairs; endless shopping malls; the bookstore and the library; wherever. Heck I even like sitting in the airport waiting for a plane. There's just something about the anonymity of the hangout that frees me to write, and reflect, and be. And I like that.


Starbucks, for me, is that place where I grew to be my own person, to think through my own opinions away from the influence of family and community. It's where I took my kids as toddlers and later, with their friends. Where I handed out surveys doing research for my dissertation. Where I brought my laptop to have some peace and quiet and blog. Where my family sat and read the paper, waiting for the cushy couch on vacation. Where I, usually incredibly busy and tapped for time, had a few minutes and "chillaxed."


I always knew that Starbucks was in the the hangout business. But I'm not sure I really put those words to it in my mind. And you know what? They keep mistaking themselves for coffee roasters, too! They don't see that everybody else has caught up to them.  Their coffee is not unique. Their chairs are not unique. Their concept is not unique.


There is nothing about Starbucks that is special anymore. And you know what? If somebody else would put decent coffee in a coffee shop near me, with a cushy chair and the paper, I would go there instead. I might even pay to rent the chair, and possibly even a little locker to hold my things, if I were going to work there all day.


Sure, I go there and drink the coffee still. But you know what? When I visited Boston I drank Dunkin' Donuts. And I must tell you, I can't stand the taste of Dunkin' Donuts much of the time, because it tastes burnt. I have to mask it with sugarfree vanilla syrup.


Point is, whatever is ubiquitous is what's going to draw the loyal band brand. Most of the time.


When my kids were little we used to go to Playspace in New York City, a paid indoor playground. The most crowded feature of Playspace, hands-down, was the secret tent with the colorful floppy shower curtain opening. There the kids gathered and pretended to have their own little hangouts. There they pretended to be all grown up.


Today, the giant megalosaurus brand Starbucks, a brand I have long admired, must admit that it is resting on its laurels. Worse, it is drinking its own Kool-Aid – enamored with itself and clueless about what the customer needs and wants. Drugging everyone up with sugary fatty Frappuccinos and cupcakes and the like. Hoping that the next big "blend" or treat or name will give them a future.


Starbucks is thinking the wrong way. They should be banking on the memories of thirtysomethings who grew up with the brand. And others who remember growing up, and hangouts. Especially hangouts that comforted one when the parents were out there working and our homes were quiet and empty.


I repeat my call to Starbucks to reinvent themselves now. Do something daring, different, amazing. I have always liked the brand and the company and the concept that they stand for. But now, I continue to be disappointed.


Starbucks - make yourselves great again. Your brand essence is the hangout business. Go back and create a cave we want to inhabit, above all others, once again. 

Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D.