retail news in context, analysis with attitude

About two weeks ago, it was reported here on MNB that Starbucks is testing yet another new marketing approach as it tries to recapture its mojo - it is renovating its store on Seattle’s Capitol Hill and giving it an entirely new name, 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea. The Starbucks name will be nowhere to be seen on the façade, or on the products being sold inside. Starbucks also plans to change the kind of products it sells in the new stores: In the spirit of a traditional coffeehouse, it will serve wine and beer, as well as host live music and poetry readings.

According to Harvard Business.org, the format is likely to fail because it is essentially dishonest.

Here’s how the website assesses the new store:

“…15th Ave Coffee & Tea is an experiment doomed to failure, because there's no way a corporate coffee chain can create an authentic neighborhood coffeehouse experience.

“Your favorite local coffeehouse is the product of someone's passion, dedication, and probable borderline craziness. 15th Ave is the product of corporate product design and development.

“Read the introductory copy on the 15th Ave website:

Fresh roasted coffee. Tea picked from the far reaches of the world with care. Artisan baked breads and treats that are sure to delight. A little flair of Italia with some heavenly gelato or affogato. 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea brings these flavors of the world direct to your local neighborhood everyday.

“This is so transparently corporate marketing speak. Compare it to the website of my favorite San Francisco coffeehouse, Farley's, which is amateurish (and I mean that by its Latin root: done for the love) and personal:

Roger Farley Hillyard broke his coffee pot back in 1988 and could not find a store to purchase a replacement part. After scouring the city, Farley's was conceptualized as a coffee and tea store. Through various incarnations, the present day concept of creating a place of community for the community was developed....The character of Farley's mirrors the uniqueness of the people and allows for a genuine and distinctive experience for everyone.

“Faking it is not a good strategy in bed or in retail.”

The site goes on:

“Everyone knows it's run by Starbucks, but the website and the store do all they can to suggest it's a true independent (though the high level of interior design suggests a bankroll out of the reach of most entrepreneurs) … It's pretty clear that there's a high degree of consternation about the associations people have with the Starbucks Experience. I find it foolish that they're trying to re-engage the more sophisticated end of the coffeehouse market through this new, out-of-whole-cloth creation. What Starbucks needs is a series of ‘experience interventions’ within their existing store framework.”
KC's View:
At the very least, this is going to be an great and ongoing branding discussion that hopefully will teach us some important lessons, no matter what business we’re in or what kind of venue we operate.

To be honest, my reaction was pretty much the same as that of HarvardBusiness.org when I first read about the new store, but I’ve softened a bit … mostly because I haven't seen it yet and think that you at least have to give Starbucks the benefit of the doubt. I’m not sure it is fair to criticize Starbucks for being bigger and more corporate than Farley’s; that’s sort of like criticizing an orange for being, well, orange.

The question is, what’s the best way to innovate and differentiate within the framework of a company like Starbucks? Not sure we know that yet…and my concern that the once and present CEO, Howard Schultz, may not be the best person to lead the company into the future has been expressed here before. But on this one, I want to see it and experience it before I pass judgment.