Branding lessons from Starbucks

Starbucks is one of the great business success stories of all time. Growing from 11 Seattle stores in 1987 to a worldwide phenomenon with more than 20,000 locations in 62 countries, Starbucks has defined an entire industry. The company’s fascinating journey has also provided a great opportunity for CEOs from all industries to learn some valuable lessons about branding.

Not everyone loves Starbucks, and that’s fine. Controversy is actually healthy for a brand, because you can’t have loyalty without strong emotions. The best brands are highly polarized, with people intensely passionate or equally negative towards them. Apple, BMW, Southwest Airlines and many other brands are either loved or hated. So it’s not surprising that people have strong emotions about Starbucks.

It was time to review some of the qualities that set Starbucks apart from other companies, branding lessons we can all learn from in the world of business.

Starbucks is one of my favorite brands. I’ll choose this over other coffee merchants when setting a meeting location. Having observed the brand’s marketing communications for a number of years, I thought it was time to review some of the qualities that set it apart from other companies, qualities we can all learn from in the world of business.

Lesson 1: Passion

As Howard Schultz describes in his first book, Pour Your Heart Into It, the brand grew from his quest to make great coffee part of the American experience. Schultz had witnessed firsthand the impact of an Italian barista’s passion for great coffee and it made a lasting impression. The great brands are all born from a passion to change things.

Starbucks Coffee Master James

James, earning his designation as a Starbucks Coffee Master as the host of a coffee education seminar, impressed me with his deep coffee knowledge and passion for excellence.

That passion continues, though as Schultz recounts in his book Onward, one of the biggest challenges of managing tens of thousands of employees in a service business — most of them working part time as they focus on other things like college — has been to instill in all of them the same commitment he has.

Starbucks has done so admirably. Staff are referred to as “Partners.” The company’s internal programs reflect that relationship.

The company works hard to educate customers about coffee. Not long ago I enjoyed a coffee education seminar hosted by James, a Starbucks partner whose passion for coffee was infectious. Through his impressive knowledge, he made me appreciate some of the finer aspects of different coffee blends. The seminar was the last stage of a lengthy education process that culminated in James earning a coveted “black apron” as a Coffee Master.

Educating staff is a key part of the company’s focus. There are countless seminars and opportunities for staff to develop their skills. In fact, education is such an important part of the culture that Starbucks even chose to close their doors for a company-wide educational session, choosing quality over short-term revenue even though it inconvenienced thousands of customers.

Starbucks staff are also uniquely empowered to deal with customer complaints. When a mistake is made, partners are authorized to take ownership and go beyond expectations to resolve it. I’ve been given free beverage coupons for such simple things as my drink taking longer than it should have.

This is an important branding lesson in itself.

Having provided marketing communication support for a large restaurant chain, I’ve seen franchisees try to justify problems identified by customers. You can’t. In every argument with a customer, the company loses. Indeed, I see it as a loss for both parties. Dealing with problems as soon as they happen and making sure the customer is happy is one of the most important things any service business can instill in its corporate philosophy. While it’s true that some customers take advantage of this philosophy to do what essentially amounts to theft, brands can’t use that as justification to fight back. In this area, Starbucks shines.

Passion is the foundation of every great brand. You can’t build a loyal customer base without this key element.

Lesson 2: Education

Starbucks signage for Tribute blend

Starbucks has long helped to educate customers about different coffee blends, giving them status through knowledge.

The primary focus of the Starbucks brand, according to Howard Schultz, was to be the “meeting place between home and work,” accomplishing that by turning coffee into a personalized experience. In that role, Schultz built an entire industry which had not existed previously.

Until Starbucks, people drank coffee at home (remember those ads for Maxwell House?), and went off to work, where there was little brand loyalty surrounding the kind of grounds used in the office coffee machine. People would go to a coffee shop and just order “coffee” with little regard as to the origin or blend of beans it was made from. There were coffee shops in America, but they were not places that celebrated great coffee. They were more likely to celebrate breakfast or pie or ice cream. They were generally dull looking places, too.

Starbucks changed all that.

Not only did the company’s educational emphasis make people aware of coffee blends, but Starbucks began to celebrate the individuality of those who drank it. The process of ordering hand-crafted espresso beverages took on a whole new status. Remember the scene from “You’ve Got Mail” where Starbucks is specifically identified as the place where people with no decision-making abilities get to make six decisions just to order a cup of coffee? It made the process a status symbol for millions of people!

Lesson 3: Creating Emotion

Nobody ever buys anything without some emotional attachment. They use rational decision-making only to justify the emotional decision they’ve already made. All successful brands know this and build their relationships with customers on an emotional foundation. Starbucks has also created a strong emotional connection with customers. This process began with the emphasis on personalizing the process of ordering your beverage so that the very act of defining your product choice became an emotional experience. But the emotional connection goes much deeper than the ordering process.

Starbucks decal

Starbucks uses constantly-changing decals on store windows to create an emotional connection between customers and the brand.

What can be emotional about coffee? It’s a black liquid! Yet when you take the time to look deeper, you can find all kinds of stories in the midst of that rich liquid and Starbucks has done an admirable job of capitalizing on that emotional story-telling power.

Signage celebrates the emotion of coffee with such messages as “There’s a story in every coffee.” Note that the message isn’t about “every cup” which might be self-serving and meaningless, not to mention boringly expected. It’s about the story in every “coffee” which takes an entirely different path and leads you into the different blends and their unique qualities. This is brilliant!

Every Christmas, the red cups come out. People around the world see the red cups as a key symbol indicating the start of the holiday season. Starbucks marketing messages announce the arrival of the red cups as if they were as important as the motion picture Oscars. And, as far as the company is concerned, they are.

People around the world see the red cups as a key symbol indicating the start of the holiday season.

The red cups identify the start of the most important revenue-generating season of the year. But what’s great about the company’s marketing is that the red cups are promoted as something meaningful to customers. The customer is seen as getting a benefit out of something as simple as the color of the container their beverage is poured into. This is a great example of how good marketing focuses the attention on the customer.

Starbucks re-usable sleeves display

Starbucks has a strong commitment to the environment, another area where the brand builds an emotional involvement with customers.

Another area where Starbucks has developed strong emotional support is its emphasis on the environment and other causes. Even though people may not necessarily agree with the company on all the things the brand supports, they can respect the fact that it stands behind its commitment in these areas, unlike other brands that try to stay neutral in an effort to avoid offending anyone.

The company has innovated such things as re-usable cups that look just like the paper cups, and re-usable cloth sleeves that help save trees. The company offers a discount when you bring a re-usable cup, recognizing that this environmental statement is not just an act but a genuine corporate commitment.

Is your company’s product or service a commodity? Don’t believe it! Evian turned water into a brand. Frank Purdue turned chicken into a brand. There is no such thing as commodity. You just need to be intentional about finding the story within and you can make even the most ordinary item a distinct brand.

Lesson 4: Consistency

Starbucks may have over 20,000 stores, but it does not give in to the easy road of mass-producing everything to save money. Each store, while distinct in its characteristic, is consistent with the brand identity and the brand messaging.

Far too many companies throw out everything they stand for on a regular basis in a misguided belief that this is what customers want. Wrong. Customers want consistency. Just look at how people react when you change one small aspect of a product or logo. Starbucks gets this, and keeps things remarkably consistent.

One of the most important elements of Starbucks branding is the way every aspect of the store highlights the value of hand-crafted elements. Even though signage is obviously mass-produced (with that many stores, how could it not be), it never looks mass-produced. Signage always looks as if someone painstakingly made it by hand. Whenever possible, hand-lettering is in fact applied so that there’s a deeply personal involvement in the message.

This emphasis on hand-crafted messages reflects the hand-crafted beverages the company sells.

Merchandising displays contain cut-out shapes and rough, hand-drawn lettering. Surfaces are never ordinary, and rarely angular, but usually curved and shaped in unusual ways to highlight the fact that someone took time to create something by hand. Images are often charming illustrations that reflect genuine artistry. There are even hand-written messages from baristas to celebrate special beverage creations. All of these elements demonstrate a consistent emphasis on the company’s primary focus of creating hand-crafted beverages to act as the perfect meeting place between home and work.

Hand-crafted messages.

Starbucks has applied a consistent strategy of using hand-crafted lettering and images to emphasize the hand-crafted beverages it makes for customers.

Lesson 5: Innovation

Another area in which Starbucks has continued to build the brand is through constant innovation.

Starbucks ornament gift card

Starbucks continues to innovate with new ways for customers to purchase and use their products, yet always in a way that maximizes emotional impact. Like this Christmas ornament cash card.

The company was the first to revolutionize the coffee industry by empowering customers to customize their hand-crafted beverage orders. While other companies saw such things as problems costing them productivity and increased costs, Starbucks saw opportunity and embraced it.

Starbucks introduced the first brand-specific point-of-purchase cash card and did it with such quality it became the model for all others to follow. Many other companies still haven’t come close to the seamless way in which the Starbucks card works. Cards led the way in design excellence, with transparent plastic design elements and such advances as individual custom layouts you could design on the website. Starbucks cards continue to innovate.

In 2013 the company introduced a brilliant Christmas tree ornament card shaped like a tiny red Starbucks cup with its identification wrapper designed to look like the cardboard sleeve.

Starbucks was the first to introduce a point-of-purchase mobile app that could be used to pay for your purchase in the store. Again, they did it brilliantly. While other vendors have encountered numerous technical glitches, Starbucks cards work flawlessly. When technology doesn’t cooperate you can still make your purchase using your mobile device.

The company has also innovated in other ways, especially in product introductions like Frappuccino blended iced beverages, its infamous Pumpkin Spice Latte and Eggnog Latte. Not every effort has been successful. The “liquid chocolate” product introduced a decade ago was certainly innovative but didn’t see enough demand to survive.


Starbucks is a great brand because it follows all the recognized rules of great branding. The company understands what makes it unique. It communicates that message to staff and customers alike, educating both groups so that they not only understand what the unique qualities are but why they matter.

The company empowers staff to build customer loyalty.

Starbucks creates an emotional connection between its products and customers, by making the customers the center of attention and providing a variety of ways that they can feel empowered by their involvement with the brand. It also supports key initiatives and helps customers relate to those areas in a meaningful way.

The company innovates constantly, never standing still. Not every innovation needs to be successful. The key point is to keep trying.

Finally, Starbucks shows a consistency in brand messaging that extends into every area of the business, including the way stores and products are designed. Even the logo has barely changed, with only minor refinements since the mid 1990s.

George Pytlik

George Pytlik has been involved in the advertising industry for over 30 years and designed his first website when the Internet was one year old. He was an internationally recognized speaker on advertising and branding and served on a number of communication committees at various times throughout his career, as well as writing a regular column for Marketing magazine.

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