Learning From Starbucks’ $2.3 Billion Mistake

In November 2013 Starbucks, the prototypical “Princess” brand, was fined $2.8 B in a dispute with Kraft, which had seen Starbucks ‘whore’ its brand through Kraft in grocery store chains. Read the details in Wall Street Journal article.

Has Starbucks become Slutbucks?

As Shakespeare’s Hamlet said: “This above all: to thine own self be true, and it follows as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” What does this mean to your brand? The most important thing is to understand your own brand. This has been demonstrated to me time after time as I have seen brand after brand (both successful and struggling) fail through the simplest of errors: acting out of character. We have all been indoctrinated with the ‘truth’ of our fairy tale characters. So when our brand, unconsciously associated with one of these characters acts out of character it crosses an invisible mental boundary with its audience. For instance: a princess may be pretty, popular, even supernaturally attractive, but she is always and forever a virgin. Therefore any hint of the whore around her destroys her credibility—in brand terms cannibalizing market equity.

Brands are simply part of a game, which all of humankind plays. We are all part of it, and of creating it; and it comes down to stories. What is fascinating to me, and of particular interest to anyone who is interested in successful branding, is that there is such a small number of stories circulating among the top-100 global brands.

Reconstruction of the West pediment of the Parthenon, in scale.
Reconstruction of the West pediment of the Parthenon, in scale. From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository

We live in a culture descended from a common heritage through a singular line of conquerors. This rich history is Western in nature, Greco-Roman specifically, and accounts for our alphabet, our notions of self-determination as well as our concepts of market structure. A handful of stories, passed down over hundreds of generations, have survived translation and cultural bias to become the basis for the brand economy, in which survival of the fittest is the survival of the ‘firstest’—the top-of-mind awareness of brands in popular culture that reflect and embody winning formulas demonstrated through ancient myths and legend.

First among these is the ideal of the benevolent Father. Embodied by ‘strong and secure’ brands such as IBM, Ford and more recently Dell, these brands would be personified by a King, an Emperor or a loving Father in legend. Because the dignified King is commanding and uses his power wisely, he is a role model. If you demonstrate integrity and honesty, he will reward you. He teaches going the extra mile. He believes that hard work pays off. Is it any wonder that a corporation based on such tenets obtains trust, and profits through the marketplace?

Working with hundreds of brands over the course of decades of practical research has guided me to observe over-arching patterns of success, and sometimes failure, of all sorts of brands from home-grown mom-and-pop operations to the success of global top-100 brands like CHANEL and VIRGIN. What these successful brands have in common is unstated adherence to a handful of stories that circulate in common repetition through fairy tales first learned in childhood, then repeated thousands of times through our lives. This early ‘programming’ makes us receptive to brands that conform consistently to story type and reject those ones that do not.

Corporations and individuals may all benefit from conscious awareness of branding. My own personal brand is based on that of the jocular Knight, riding to the rescue, full of good humor and mirth, even while his mission is one of gravest importance (in fairy tale terms, rescuing the Princess in Peril). Aladdin, Prince Charming and Prometheus are my prototypes. Knowing this, it is easier for others to understand my peripatetic path, ‘riding to the rescue’ in a variety of contracts and positions over a period of decades without really settling myself down, as I seek the kingdom of my dreams. Like the Knight of olden days I have frequently been content to rest my brow in nature’s field or forest, at home anywhere, so long as I am ready at a moment’s notice to leap astride my trusty steed and dash my precious cargo safely across raging torrents.

Branding’s power not only helps tell my story, it personally empowers me as well. As the trusty knight I know both when and where my services are wanted, and where they are not, or even are perceived as a threat. Because brands, including individuals’ own actions in the marketplace, do not work through exclusivity but rather through choice, this is extremely helpful in narrowing my focus and saves me lots of time in knowing what types of corporate brands may most benefit from my services (as well as those which might, but likely will not due to the limits of our own perspectives—for instance other Knights). This allows me to focus my energies on those for whom a ‘Knight’ is the solution (likely brand personas include the Princess, the King, the Queen and the Family).

What is YOUR brand persona, and why? Do you see instances where going against this ‘story’ has been costly, even disastrously expensive? When your brand is performing at its best, how does it act? I’d like to hear more about your stories, in the comments below.

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