A recent video I really enjoyed provides an extremely memorable anecdote, and some thoughts:
Simon Sinek (the speaker, an ethnographer and leadership guru-type) approached a homeless woman with a typical sign asking for handouts, reading something like, “I’m hungry, I’m homeless, I have children, please help.” He volunteered another approach, making the plea less about her and more about her potential donors: “If you only give once a month, please think of me next time.”
He claims she went from her average 20-30 dollars a day to making 40 dollars in two hours. All by addressing her audiences’ needs instead of her own. The new message alleviates potential guilt (“See, I understand you can’t always give, and that’s okay.”), as well as any worries about her motivations (“Yes, I really do need it, I’ve been here before and will be here again.”). I hope that story is true, because it’s totally brilliant.
This is 20 minutes into an interesting talk about how we crave connection with others more than anything, and are constantly on the lookout for symbols that help us establish that connection. The woman’s sign connects because it’s her considering your position, not just broadcasting hers. If you’re traveling overseas, just hearing someone speaking the same language is an excuse to connect. In your home city, maybe it’s a sports cap or an accent.
But it could also be the brand of clothes you wear or electronics you carry. All the most-loved companies got that way not just by making the best stuff (though many also do that), but by having a badge value. A great brand stands for something that its fans want to be seen as standing for too. Which can sometimes be mistaken for “cool”, but is more about conveying meaning — broadcasting something about ourselves in the hope others will pick up on it. It’s the same reason people tweet or update or blog or share anything online. We’re all just hoping someone notices and responds. We want to connect with each other.
It’s a desire a lot of companies seem to get slightly wrong, though. There’s a persistent idea that they should be having a ‘conversation’ with their audience now that these new technologies exist. But do most people want a connection with their TV brand? Their potato chip company? Their car dealership? They may want information or service from those entities, occasionally, but ongoing conversation? Not really. What people really want is better, more interesting conversations with other people. If they’re doing a good job, sometimes those companies will do or create something worth talking about. If they do it often enough, the symbol becomes shorthand for lots of interesting conversations past and present, and people who want to seem interesting display their interest in that symbol by putting it on their car or backpack or even body.
Really interesting people don’t just join conversations, or keep conversations going for the purpose of filling the silence. They start ones that everyone wants to join. Ones that are worth having again with new people they talk to later, because they can’t stop thinking about them, because they matter.
I don’t drink coffee. I love the smell, but I just never started drinking it, so I never got the taste for it, and so it’s not a part of my life. The whole Starbucks fever of the last 20 years has been completely wasted on me. There’s even one in the building right next door to my apartment, which lots of people would see as a huge plus, location-wise, but for me it’s just something I walk around to get to Subway or the smoothie place. Too bad, looks like they have some comfy chairs in there.
But then I saw an article this week that got me a bit excited. Well really, it reminded me of this even better article from back in July, but where The Awl makes a better case, USA Today puts it nice and simply:
The Starbucks of the future arrived today.
If Starbucks executives have it figured out right, this could be the prototype for the next generation of stores for one of the world’s most influential brands.
A very different kind of Starbucks is on tap. It will serve regional wine and beer. It offers an expansive plate of locally made cheeses — served on china. The barista bar is rebuilt to seat customers up close to the coffee.
Most conspicuously, the place looks less like a Starbucks and more like a cafe that’s been part of the neighborhood for years — yet that’s “green” in design and decor. This is the calling card of independent java joints that have been eating and sipping away at Starbucks’ evening business for decades. U.S. Starbucks stores get 70% of business before 2 p.m.
As an admirer of what Starbucks has done from a brand standpoint — but only ever from afar as a non-coffee-guy — I love this for a couple of reasons. One, selfishly, I could end up with a potentially decent wine bar practically outside my door in the near future; and I’d finally have an excuse to go sit in one of those comfy chairs.
But professionally, I respect this move for its astuteness. Starbucks’ core competency, to get all B-school for a second, is coffee, no one would deny that. They made coffee in America what it is today. Their brand, however, isn’t just taste in that timeless Maxwell House “good to the last drop” kind of way. It’s taste in a curation sort of way. Starbucks introduces people to the wider world of coffee and educates them in why that matters. The exact service is something a huge swath of America could probably use when it comes to wine.
And they’re just as much about a comfortable place to enjoy the product as they are the product itself, which, hey, why not give coffee fans a reason to come back around at 6 and wind down in those aforementioned chairs? Or Starbucks gawkers like myself a chance at the warm feeling of having your local barista know your favorite drink when you drop by the neighborhood shop, even if that happens to be a dark red instead of a skinny cap?
That’s why I’m pulling for this to work, even though, as the earlier Awl article points out, there might even be a bigger benefit:
Here’s where I start to buy the corporate speak. They’re doing it because we need it. Because wine bars outside of wine country in America generally fall into two categories: terrible and privileged.
We’re not in northern Spain, and while a lot of our bars do an impressive job, we’re not the freewheeling, drink-wine-because-it’s-there society we could be. You get hackjobs and you get greatness, but there’s usually no wine “local” we all head to at 5:30 on a Tuesday.
Starbucks stands to change that. As you went from Folgers to fresh-brewed to macchiato to maybe even a working knowledge of “free trade” and “single origin,” we may someday be in position to make everyday wine a larger part of our patois. The sameness Starbucks will bring, much as it did with coffee, can be precisely its source of innovation.
So come on Starbucks. Make with the updates and warm up a lounger ’cause I’m dropping by and I want my wine and cheese. For America.