Monday, May 18, 2009

Harlan Koch Revisited, but is Starbucks' new message believable?

Flickr photo by bitca used under a Creative Commons license

Perhaps you remember Harlan Koch, a character that I created in a January 30 post to represent someone who is, in my words, "an insane person" - insane about the quality of his/her product. The name itself is taken from Harlan Sanders, who repeatedly hawked the quality of his fried chicken, and Jim Koch, who repeatedly hawks the quality of his beer.

In that post, I questioned whether Starbucks' Howard Schultz is as insane as Sanders and Koch. He was in the beginning, but is he now?

Perhaps. Or at least someone in Starbucks is pretending to be insane.

I'll skip over the way in which Starbucks is using social media, and concentrate on the message that they want to convey. From the New York Times:

The outdoor ads boil Starbucks’ message down to headlines, some of them veiled jabs at competitors: “If your coffee isn’t perfect, we’ll make it over. If it’s still not perfect, you must not be in a Starbucks.”...

Starbucks’s text-heavy ads have bold headlines written on a background that looks like a burlap coffee sack, meant to evoke roasted coffee, said David Lubars, chief creative officer of BBDO North America, the agency that created the campaign and part of the Omnicom Group.

The full-page newspaper ads go to some length to describe how Starbucks selects only the best 3 percent of beans and roasts them until they pop twice, and gives its part-time workers health insurance.

Professor Richard Honack, however, doesn't believe that text-intensive quality ads are the way to go.

“Generation Y goes to Starbucks for the Internet, the music, a place to hang out,” he said. “Selling them the coffee and where the coffee comes from? I just don’t know if that’s a good idea.”

Needless to say, I disagree with Professor Honack. This is what I said back in January:

But last I checked, the official name of the company is still Starbucks Coffee Company, and its mission statement is still "To inspire and nurture the human spirit— one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time." Somehow it doesn't seem all that inspiring when you cut back on your main product line.

So despite Professor Honack's opinion, I personally think that Starbucks has the right message - but is it believable? If your competition is McDonalds, then perhaps it can be believable, but Starbucks is also competing against the many independent coffee shops that are all over the place. Such as Rancho Cucamonga's Coffee Klatch, who I blogged about in February 2008 and April 2009. Well, Coffee Klatch has a blog, and here's part of a recent post:

My visit to Central America can be summed up with three words: Cupping, Cupping, and Cupping. This was a quick and fast paced visit to three of my favorite origins for the sole purpose of cupping lots with some of our Direct Trade farmers.

I was only in Costa Rica for one day and spent it cupping different lots of Cerro Paldo to choose my favorite. Cerro Paldo was the 2007 COE winner that set a record for the highest price paid for a Costa Rican Coffee. Last year I bought this coffee because of its delicious cup. This year promises to be even better than last year. Several lots were great and one was out of this world. I will cup again in our own lab before bringing in the best from Cerro Paldo but it will be great.

OK, so maybe Coffee Klatch doesn't have an exciting Twitter competition or an award-winning advertising agency, but who are you going to believe when they're talking about coffee?
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