(Star)Bucking The Trend

There I was, just this past Tuesday, sitting at the Farmer’s Market at Fairfax and Third in Hollywood, California.

Hollywood’s a long way from where I live in Boston, but Stallone’s been pestering me to come out and do the “lunch thing” with him and Leno, and so I finally said okay. (I’m kidding; I never return Stallone’s calls.)

Anyway, I was out there on a one-week vacation with my family, and since we were staying right across the street, we thought we’d check it out.

The Farmer’s Market is a hopping place: lots of people, lots of produce and lots of choices for eating breakfast. My kids quickly discovered the homemade crepe place and promptly sat down at the counter.

I was just about to join them too, until I spied what I consider to be a “breakfast red flag” over the crepe man’s shoulder: a pot of coffee boiling away on the stove. I’m not much of a food guy, but I admit to having evolved into a coffee snob over the years. This particular set up – where the coffee simmers away for hours – is always a disappointment.

So I told my wife Linda, “I’ll be right back,” and went off in search of a Starbucks, a place whose coffee, while not necessarily the best on the planet, is always better than good enough. Ten minutes later, I was back – tall, black, dark roast in one hand and a bag containing a thick slice of banana bread in the other.

That’s when it got interesting. Because printed on the outside of the Starbucks bag, was the following note:


We’re making a change. Using simpler recipes and taking out artificial ingredients. So your food not only tastes better, it is better. It’s a start. But we think it’s a good one. Hope you do too. Enjoy.

Your Friends at Starbucks

P.S. More to come.

I was impressed. I put down the bag, stood up, pointed myself in the approximate direction of Seattle, and murmured appreciatively: “Touche Starbucks.”

Here’s the thing. In writing this note, Starbucks did a lot of things right – and they’re all things which deliberately serve to put a human face on a monstrously large company:

  • The note was “hand-written.” Not really hand-written, but in a font that looks like handwriting. People write hand-written notes; companies don’t (usually).
  • The sentences were short (some were not even complete sentences). Take a look at the e-mails you send and receive, especially from people you know well. That’s how real people write to each other.
  • The note didn’t claim victory. We marketers love to exaggerate the truth; one move in the right direction and we’re busy unfurling the Mission Accomplished banners. But it never rings true among readers. In this case, Starbucks simply said, “It’s a start.”
  • The note was signed. Yes, “Your Friends” is somewhat contrived, and they’d be better off if they could get a real person’s name into the signature. But at least it doesn’t just end abruptly. It’s a note, not a notice.
  • There was no sales message. There’s no “20% off your next order if you bring back this bag,” or whatever. It’s simply an attempt to connect with customers. I humbly bow to whomever it was in the Starbucks marketing department who decided to forgo today’s short term sale in favor of tomorrow’s (much more valuable) long term relationship.

Two final thoughts and then I’ll let you get back to your coffee.

First, notice that the degree of truth in the Starbucks’ message – simpler recipes, less artificial ingredients, better tasting food – doesn’t really matter. I hope it’s true, but as a consumer, I can’t tell the difference anyway. The value to them in getting me to come back is in the way the message is written.

Second, there’s nothing they’re doing that you can’t do better. It’s very hard for a large company to write a human-sounding message; there are just too many people involved. You and I, on the other hand, don’t have a legal or marketing or PR department. We can even hand-write our hand-written notes with real hands.

So take a look at your written materials. If a company with 17,000 locations and 85,000 employees sounds more authentic than you, you’ve got some rewriting to do.

Your Friends at Blue Penguin

P.S. More to come

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