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A venti-size brand challenge

This is a love letter to a brand I crave every day but fear may be losing its way.

I read today that Starbucks in investing in a new TV campaign to help feed its voracious appetite for growth. As an advertising professional I supposed I should greet this as good news. But I don't. I believe in great brands. And, to be sure, TV has a role in the creation of many powerful brands. But this is not the solution Starbucks needs at this moment. In fact the idea of using mass marketing may exacerbate the very problems that have led to its decision to become a mass marketer.

The company's growth is insatiable. It's difficult to maintain a cult of the "third place" when the brand is every place. I recently heard a bit of biting satire (I believe attributed to The Onion) that captures the issue: "In order to maintain its rampant growth Starbucks will begin opening new locations in the men's rooms of existing Starbucks."

In an internal memo accidentally leaked to the media earlier this year, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz exhorted his management to get back to the core brand promise - great coffee served in an intimate neighborhood coffee house setting. Schultz pointed out several decisions he believes have watered down the customer experience -- e.g., the new automatic espresso machines that, because of their height, removed the theater and romance of watching the barista prepare your latte, or the company's decision to use flavor-lock packaging that robbed the environment of any coffee aroma whatsoever. Small decisions on their own. Big decisions when viewed with the clarity of 20/20 hindsight.

Here's an example of from my neck of the woods of standardization run amok. As part of its recent acquisition of Diedrich's, an O.C. coffee house chain, Starbucks took over one of Diedrich's crown jewel locations, a beach front store in Laguna Beach, home to surfers and artists. This joint exuded a bohemian feel with beachy furniture and live music in the evenings. But rather than preserve this vibe in a Starbucks way, out went the local flavor and live music and in came the McFurniture and piped-in music (available for $12.99). Pity.

So what should Starbucks do instead of TV? I'd like to see the brand invest in creating more experiences. Give me more reasons to visit and spend time -- e.g., free WiFi. Since coffee is a social experience, advocate social issues in the same manner as American Express does so well throughout the year. Own the idea of great coffee by helping me appreciate the nuances of different beans and coffee regions. Be a loud advocate for Fair Trade coffee. And when it comes to music, be the launching pad for new indie music.

In sum, I want my Starbucks to behave more like an artisan and less like a marketer.