The Not-So-Secret to Starbucks Addiction

Starbucks has cultivated a lot of loyal customers who find its coffee shops inviting, the service friendly and the branding subtle. They also appreciate the friction-free ways they can buy their morning cup of joe.

Starbucks has cultivated a lot of loyal customers who find its coffee shops inviting, the service friendly and the branding subtle. They also appreciate the friction-free ways they can buy their morning cup of joe.

I am addicted to Starbucks – and I don’t drink coffee. I’m not alone.

Starbucks does a lot of things right. Clean, inviting coffee shop atmospheres – usually equipped with electric plugs to charge laptops or smartphones. Constantly evolving menus of drinks and snacks (and here and there wine). Friendly baristas who wish you a good day even when you don’t tip.

Some of the smart stuff Starbucks does is subtle. Like coffee cup sleeves that deliver brand messages. The current sleeve touts Starbucks’ commitment to hire veterans and military spouses (“10,000 and counting”) and was designed by the daughter of a Navy SEAL. The previous sleeve contained short testimonials of Starbucks employees enrolled in company-paid online college classes offered by Arizona State University (my daughter is enrolled). The sleeves reflect major corporate commitments that align well with its consumer base.

However, Robbie Kellman Baxter, who wrote The Membership Economy, says the smartest thing Starbucks does is reduce the friction in buying a cup of coffee. The Starbucks loyalty program, she explains, is tied with ease of purchase.

“Unlike punch cards of old, Starbucks cards usually start as gift cards, which the member connects digitally to a personal account from the Starbucks website,” Baxter says. “The member can add money to the card, either electronically or at the register. Why is this important? Because it removes a layer of friction, in that members only need their Starbucks card and not two cards or a card plus cash.”

Starbucks has taken its loyalty program even deeper with an app that allows coffee consumers to pay with their smartphones instead of pulling out a physical card of fumbling with cash. The app also allows consumers in a hurry to place mobile orders, so they can bypass any line or the cash register to retrieve their drink.

An inviting atmosphere, non-intrusive branding and frictionless purchases account for why Starbucks remains so popular. What is hard to fathom is why more consumer-facing companies haven’t emulated some of the Starbucks savvy.

The Shane Company has gotten the message. Instead of repetitious ads that tout buying diamonds in Antwerp, the jewelry company has bedecked its exterior with signs that say, “What are you waiting for?” and “Ask her now.” The jeweler offers a comfortable, non-threatening sales floor. Customers are quickly greeted and hooked up with a sales person. You can get your ring cleaned and checked without a second thought. It invites customer to show off their rings on Shane’s Instagram and Twitter feeds.

Back to Starbucks, loyal customers invariably return, even though serious coffee drinkers think places like Stumptown serve better coffee, because it just feels right. The Starbucks secret to loyalty is not really a secret.

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Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.