Staying true to the brand
versus being stubborn

Mule-R

ANECDOTES ABOUND of companies that prosper by sticking to brand promises.* That’s great when brand promises are relevant. Sticking to promises no one gives a hoot about isn’t so much a show of brand integrity as a show of stubbornness. 

For a look at how clinging to “because that’s our brand” isn’t always a good thing, I invite you to travel back in time to 1983 Milan, Italy, when a fellow by the name of Howard Schultz happened into a coffee house and emerged with a cup of espresso and an epiphany. 

Never had Schultz had a coffee experience like that one. The intimate surroundings, the aroma, the barista’s expertise and showmanship, the dark, rich flavor of the espresso—all of these things fueled his imagination. He returned to the U.S. with a new vision for the company he’d recently bought into. No longer would Schultz be content with a company that only roasted and sold coffee beans. He was going to open coffee houses everywhere so his customers could bask in the same experience that overwhelmed him in Milan.

His partners were unmoved, so they parted ways. They would launch and make a success of Peet’s Coffee, with which you’re undoubtedly familiar. Remaining behind, Schultz set about raising capital in order to morph a one-location coffee roasting company, Starbucks, also with which you’re undoubtedly familiar, into a chain of Italian-style coffee houses.

From the get-go, Schultz showed an intrinsic understanding of brand substance. He was passionate about recreating in the U.S. the experience that had captured him in Milan. We do it the way the do it in Italy proved a great guiding principle for delivering a consistent, quality product in a consistent, pleasing setting.

But sometimes the flipside—If they don’t do it in Italy, neither will we—proved something of a millstone.

One instance of the flipside came in the form of refusing to accommodate a growing demand for nonfat lattes. For one thing, Schulz didn’t like how nonfat lattes tasted. For another and more important, no self-respecting Italian barista would serve a nonfat latte, so therefore neither would Starbucks. The issue mushroomed into one of the company’s most heated internal debates. What eventually brought Schultz to his senses was seeing, first-hand, a customer abandon Starbucks for a competitor rather than drink what Schultz thought she should drink. Americans, it seems, don’t always care how it’s done in Italy. And they for sure don’t care whether Schultz agrees with their taste.

Another instance of brand-as-millstone came courtesy of Schultz’s nose. Besides lattes, there was growing demand for sandwiches in coffee houses. Schultz would have none of it. When nostrils walked into Starbucks, he wanted them filled with the rich aroma of fresh-roasted coffee, not cold cuts. Besides—you guessed it—you wouldn’t smell cold cuts in an Italian coffee house, so therefore you won’t smell them at Starbucks, either. Once again, consumers followed their tastes instead of Schultz’s. Perhaps you’ve noticed: Now you can order sandwiches at Starbucks.

There’s a lesson in both anecdotes. Before rejecting a new idea or clinging to an old one, it’s wise to find out what the market cares about. “Because it’s our brand” makes for good guiding principles but lousy ironclad rules.

Sticking to brand values because they’re brand values can be mindlessly circular, tantamount to saying “We do things this way because this is the way we do things.” That’s not brand commitment. It’s stubbornness.


*As I have harped in this blog before, a brand is the experience you deliver. Things like a logo, look, and slogan are not the brand, but brand trappings. Their job is not to be the experience, but to symbolize it.

 

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