The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday that Starbucks is greatly expanding its use of drive-through service windows as it penetrates deeper into the suburbs. The article mentions, but does not address the question of whether this is good branding for the Seattle-based chain.
Our opinion is that this is a mistake for Starbucks from a branding standpoint. This is a tricky argument to make, however, as Starbucks has extended its brand in ways that this Advertising Blog would not have endorsed in the past with great success. The move into ice-cream and trolley service in particular seemed to us far from the “Starbucks experience” that is so central to the brand. Consumers, however, appear to have taken these extension as reminders of the core experience rather than a substitution for it.
Why shouldn’t Starbucks have drive-throughs? Because for Starbucks the goal of the brand should be inclusion, not ubiquity. Starbucks should want to bring people together around coffee and to create environments where everyone feels welcome. Starbucks should be less concerned about whether every consumer in America is drinking Starbucks at every coffee opportunity. And Wall Street should be pushing Starbucks less in this direction. Why? Because as investors and marketers, we want to see Starbucks retain the ability to charge a premium price for a great cup of coffee. The more ubiquitous that Starbucks becomes the harder it will for Starbucks to be a ‘treat’ or a ‘special moment’ in the day. A larger company with lower profits is not an ideal situation for anyone.
Drive-throughs (like most designed elements of suburbs) reinforce anti-social behavior. They cater to cars, not to people. They disintermediate buyer from seller. They insulate us from our communities and neighbors. The Starbucks experience is the antithesis of this. While it is an individual moment (somewhat similar to the original Coca-Cola positioning “The Pause that Refreshes”), it is also a shared moment. Starbuck’s without atmosphere is no more than a brand of premium coffee. The drivethrough could in some small way contribute to the decline of an outstanding brand.