I finally had some time to flip through the latest issue of GQ this week, and was struck by one of my favorite sections: open letter. I generally love this section-chock full or snark and irreverence for all things pop culture-but this month, I felt a little attacked. Staring at me was a picture of a modified Starbucks Siren, holding a cardboard sign and looking distraught. The open letter (which you can read here) was a full-on attack against the recently troubled coffee company.
The real problem is that there used to be something about you, Starbucks, and now there isn’t. You were a quintessentially ’90s company. You were from Seattle, the same rainy cradle of anticorporate corporateness that gave us Microsoft and major-label grunge. Young dreamers camped out in your stores all day like the cast of Friends, filling napkins with business plans for e-commerce Web sites… [But now,] We’re living in an era of diminished expectations, and if things aren’t going so well for you, maybe it isn’t because people resent your McDonald’s-esque omnipresence, those cups adorned with quotes from deep thinkers like Josh Groban and David Copperfield, or the fact that you roast your beans under the space shuttle. Maybe it’s because your neither-luxurious-nor-particularly-affordable idea of affordable luxury now seems like a nonfat, half-caf, quadruple-grande bad joke. With extra foam…
GQ’s letter puts the blame on the company; “…you brought this on yourself,” it sneers. And GQ is probably right. Starbucks made a string of questionable decisions to fuel a decade of rampant growth, and we (the customers) were left with a watered-down-albeit-still-tolerable version of the company, coffee, and experience we had grown to love. “The bottom of the pot,” if you will.
But we must also recognize that Starbucks is putting forth a concerted effort push through these troubled times and reinvent itself in order to deliver new value to both its consumers and its shareholders. First, Howard Shultz, the man who made Starbucks what it is, took over the reigns once again. The company started going “back to the basics” – it reintroduced one of its signature blends; its hot cups reverted to the original Starbucks Siren logo; all employees underwent mandatory re-training. Things are off to a great start.
My favorite part of the whole turnaround is the My Starbucks Idea Website. It launched, with much fanfare, alongside the many other changes at Starbucks, and it has been hugely popular. If you haven’t yet heard of it, it’s basically a consumer-facing idea-submission site. Anyone is invited to submit their ideas, and the community can vote on the existing database of ideas. The most popular ones get fed into the Starbucks pipeline and labeled as “Ideas in Action,” and the Starbucks team posts progress updates directly to the site as things move along. Customers-both those who love and those who hate Starbucks-are willing to share some great ideas. Starbucks in incredibly lucky to have developed a following that cares enough about its success and longevity to submit their thoughts, comments, suggestions, and ideas. Could the next great Starbucks innovation emerge from this site? Possibly. In fact, it’s quite likely. In just a few months (the site launched in March 2008), people have submitted nearly 40,000 ideas. The most popular idea has nearly 100,000 votes.
So, we’ll just have to wait and see if Starbucks can redeem itself and convert the skeptics like the folks at GQ. Who do you think will come out on top? The Siren, or her detractors? Leave your thoughts below. Or come meet me at the Starbucks on 31st and 7th… I need a refill.