Listen up Starbucks! Your brand can be quite alienating to non-loyalists

November 25, 2013

Let me first start by saying that I am by no means new to Starbucks. Admittedly, Starbucks is not my preferred coffee company, but I will visit it occasionally when it is either the most convenient or the “only game in town” for my daily dose of caffeine.

Since my preferred coffee company is currently closed for three very long weeks for much needed renovations coupled with the fact that I walk by Starbucks (two of them) on my way to work, Starbucks has been designated my substitute coffee supplier for the next three weeks. And I am begrudgingly going through the motions.

Walking into a Starbucks makes me feel as if I am walking straight into a fraternity where I don't know the secret pledge and have not yet gone through the hazing process that would introduce me to the “in the know” terminology and the behind the scenes education to successfully experience of this national brand. Nor have I spent a semester studying the 3-credit course required to understand the Starbucks lingo and to confidently order a coffee or a skinny latte or half caf decaf. If you don't understand the nuances of how to order at Starbucks, it can be quite intimidating. And forget about taking your time to figure it out while you’re next in line with hordes of people anxious to get their fix of their morning hit of caffeine. My suggestion – take the time to study this beforehand via WikiHow. Yes, someone has even taken the time to clarify how to best order at Starbucks.

What I find most confusing is Starbucks’ reference to cup sizes. I’m not sure about you, but my entire life has been spent understanding small, medium and large as a distinct size reference. This holds true for clothing, food portions, fountain drinks, ice cream cones – even houses, cars, dogs, bank accounts, etc. After 50+ years of ingrained basic learning, Starbucks is forcing me to rethink this rote learning. Let’s take a quick look:

Basic rote learning Starbucks
Small =Tall = 12 oz.
Medium = Grande = 16 oz.
Large = Venti = 20 oz (hot) / 24 oz (cold)

This really doesn't make any sense to me. Why would the smallest drink be named a tall, while at the same time is the shortest cup offering? Through some soul-searching, I understand that venti means twenty and the Starbucks’ venti cup is 20 oz. However, apparently this only holds true for hot beverages; a cold venti equals 24 oz. If we continue along with this Italian naming strategy, why isn’t a grande called sedici (16) and a tall dodici (12)? I’m sorry, but I’m even more confused.

So unless you are truly an “in the know” Starbucks consumer who has their secret club lingo down pat, the Starbucks brand can be quite intimidating, unwelcoming and alienating to non-loyalists.

Good brands make their loyalist feel at home, and great brands roll out the red carpet for non-users making them feel welcome. Just take a look at Apple, Jetblue, Trader Joe’s, Amazon and Walt Disney. Brands need to cater to current and non-users alike, especially when you are providing a good or service or both. So…I am counting the days that my usual coffee house reopens (approximately 23 days). While it may be completely made over and look all fancy, I know that I will feel welcome. I will walk right passed Starbucks, check out the new digs and confidently approach the counter to order my usual large cup of coffee. With any luck, the barista who knows me will still be working at the newly refurbished store and will be filling a large cup with coffee as she sees me walking through the door.

What other brands alienate non-loyalists by making potential consumers feel as though they have to be “in the know” in order to enjoy the full brand experience?

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