A Case Study on the Digital “Starbucks Experience”
There is brand loyalty, and then there is coffee brand loyalty. Coffee drinkers, especially daily coffee drinkers, just seem to be a particular bunch. But once they find their caffeinated brand of choice, they usually stick with it.
At the front of this group are the Starbucks fanatics. We all know them. They dare not sip another brand. They might not even use a cup that doesn’t have the familiar Starbucks logo on it. They are brand loyalists. Starbucks fans first, coffee lovers second.
Social media popularity has enabled Starbucks to really fine-tune its brand experience.
But why such loyalty? Is Starbucks coffee that good (I ask, as I sip my Pike Place Roast)? Maybe. But there’s certainly something else at play, something very social: the meticulously cultivated Starbucks consumer experience.
Starbucks and the Experience
Originally that experience consisted of local Starbucks coffeehouses, a rebirth of the cozy neighborhood coffee shop. Using a highly focused brand-centric strategy, Starbucks created a buzz with these popular storefronts. They began popping up everywhere, as coffee drinkers enjoyed Starbucks’ relaxed social atmosphere, where they could gather and caffeinate freely with friends. Good coffee was important, but the experience is what made the brand successful.
Today, the Starbucks experience has grown to include social media — or, should I say, devour social media. Since 2008, when then-new CEO Howard Schultz committed to a comprehensive social marketing strategy in response to the economic downturn, Starbucks has dominated social media, sitting comfortably atop many brand rankings. As shown in this article (and companion infographic), among “limited-service restaurants in the U.S.,” Starbucks is No. 1 in Twitter, Google+ and Pinterest followers. It also tops the field in Facebook “likes.” In fact, as of this writing, Starbucks has over 38 million Facebook fans, the fifth-highest total among all brands on Facebook.
Starbucks is committed to cross-sharing throughout the entire digital landscape, a strategy that is driving success.
This social media popularity has enabled Starbucks to really fine-tune its brand experience. Take Instagram for example, where sharing Starbucks-inspired artwork and photos is becoming a popular form of expression for both the company and its fans.
“Not only has Starbucks amassed an incredible amount of [Instagram] followers, but it lets its followers primarily control the content. The vast majority of the images on Starbucks’ account are creative fan-submitted images of the world-renowned coffee,” wrote Christina Austin in a blog at Business Insider.
Starbucks’ Instagram page always features a mix of fan shots (as shown in the regram below) and Starbucks-produced images. It’s a great example of the interactive nature of Starbucks’ social media presence.
At Britton Marketing, we’ve experienced this interaction firsthand. Graphic designer Danielle Hartmann recently created a cool Starbucks logo out of Legos. We shared it on Twitter (and other social channels), and Starbucks soon replied: “@BrittonMDG Love the LEGO creativity!” That made us proud. It made us love Starbucks.
@BrittonMDG Love the LEGO creativity!
— Starbucks Coffee (@Starbucks) January 5, 2015
Of course it’s not just Instagram. Starbucks is committed to cross-sharing throughout the entire digital landscape, a strategy that is driving success. “When Starbucks takes a photo, it shares it on Instagram, posts it to Facebook, tweets it on Twitter, and pins it on Pinterest. It clearly goes to where all its customers like to hang out,” wrote Mike Schoultz of Digital Spark Marketing. “Each network provides an opportunity to reach a new audience.”
Engaging, Personable, Omnipresent
In addition to social media, Starbucks is optimizing its engagement with fans through its website as well as popular mobile apps. With tools such as the My Starbucks Rewards program and the My Starbucks Idea crowdsourcing site, Starbucks is adding value with each interaction.
My Starbucks Idea is a highly social brainstorming platform for all things Starbucks. Fans can share and discuss new ideas, read others’ ideas and vote for their favorites. Right now there are more than 44,000 new ideas for coffee and espresso drinks; nearly 22,000 food ideas; and over 10,000 new ideas for music and merchandise. According to Schoultz, “The site is at once a crowdsourcing tool, a market research method that brings customer priorities to light, an online community, and an effective Internet marketing tool.”
Quality of content is valued over quantity of followers.
There are even some ideas emerging on how to rescue Starbucks’ recent “Race Together” campaign, where Starbucks employees were encouraged to write the words “race together” on cups to get customers to talk about the racial issues that still exist in today’s world. It turned out to be a social stumble for the company, as a wave of intense negative criticism came flooding in. In fact, CEO Howard Schultz had to write a letter to Starbucks employees to ease concerns over the controversial campaign. Perhaps “Race Together” was a bit of a social overreach.
But even with an occasional stumble, the Starbucks brand is alive and growing, reaching consumers in new, more-personalized ways. Take the popular My Starbucks Rewards program. It’s a highly interactive, personalized platform that offers special deals and various customized benefits, covering everything from merchandise to music selections to personalized signature drinks. For the Starbucks fanatic, it’s a convenient lifeline to the Starbucks experience.
Our own Meghan Britton-Gross, director of marketing services (and director of all things Starbucks), describes how the My Starbucks Rewards app has become a part of her life: “The My Starbucks Rewards app gives members free songs, apps and special offers. The part I have totally played into is the rewards program. I have a competitive spirit, and I worked myself through the membership levels to ‘Gold.’ It was exciting to get to Gold, but now that I’m there, I have to earn more stars to maintain it. For every 12 stars, I get a reward. I have to load money into the app and then pay through there. It’s ridiculous, but I kinda can’t stop.” (Meghan kindly shared this screen shot of her Starbucks mobile app.)
This demonstrates the power of the Starbucks experience. The brand has become much more than a simple cup of coffee.
Quality > Quantity
It’s apparent that Starbucks’ commitment to cultivating its consumer experience is what continues to set the brand apart from the competition. What started with the revitalization of the neighborhood coffeehouse has evolved considerably into social media marketing. But it’s not just “social marketing.” It’s Starbucks’ quality-over-quantity approach — that is, quality of content over quantity of followers. And encouraging fans to help curate this content is what makes it “quality.”
Of course having quantity in terms of social media followers certainly isn’t a bad thing. In a way, the sheer number of followers seems to reinforce Starbucks’ qualitative approach. People are talking about Starbucks. People are sharing the Starbucks experience.
As we’ve seen with other recent social marketing successes (“Share a Coke,” “Tesla Motors”), many brands prefer a strategy that allows them to maximize engagement with their fans. This social engagement is what cultivates the brand experience, and it’s something that can’t be attained by simply pouring dollars into traditional advertising. Why do the work (and pay for it) yourself, when your loyal fans can do it for you?
For Starbucks, an engaging, personable social presence adds value to an already popular brand. Plus, with Wi-Fi available at coffeehouse locations, fans can enjoy the full Starbucks experience all at once — in-store and online, in hand and on their phone. This high-touch, multichannel social strategy is winning brand loyalty. Even for these discriminating coffee drinkers, it’s the Starbucks experience first, coffee second. The results speak for themselves.
Starbucks is often touted as having an excellent social strategy, so it’s an excellent subject for our series of posts looking at how brands use the four main social networks.
Having previously evaluated a number of brands including Red Bull, ASOS, Walmart and Ikea, it appeared that the brands that were doing well in social all followed the same basic blueprint – they post updates several times a day and are excellent at responding to consumers.
But as this post shows, Starbucks has managed to outperform nearly all other consumer brands in terms of community engagement despite taking the exact opposite approach.
And there is a special mention for Starbucks’ Instagram feed at the end as well...
Aside from Facebook itself which has almost 90m fans, Starbucks is one of the most ‘liked’ consumer brands on Facebook with a massive 33m fans.
This in the same ballpark as Walmart, which has 27m, however the two companies operate vastly different social strategies.
Walmart updates its page several times a day with posts including product suggestions, caption competitions and sports chat. Posting frequent updates is generally seen as the best way to maintain an engaged fan base, however Starbucks often goes weeks without posting anything.
Yet its post, which are often just attractive product images, gain thousands of ‘likes’ and hundreds of comments.
For example, a picture of the original Starbucks coffee shop with the heading ‘Where it all started’, attracted more than 150,000 ‘likes’ and 2,100 comments.
Starbucks’ social team also doesn’t seem to respond to many of these comments, if at all.
If anything Starbucks’ massive fan count and high engagement rate serves to underline the fact that there are few hard and fast rules when it comes to social media.
The other brands I’ve looked that have achieved success on Facebook, such as John Lewis and ASOS, flood their pages with numerous updates per day and do a decent job of responding to comments.
Starbucks does the exact opposite but outperforms both of these brands.
The coffee brand also has local pages for other global markets including the UK, which adopts a similar strategy towards the frequency of posts.
However the content is more varied, with videos, surveys and coupons in among the product images.
Starbucks UK is also the only brand I’ve seen so far that includes several user posts in its timeline. There are four posts from fans on February 8, two of which are ringing endorsements for the brand, while one of the others is a request for job advice from someone in Thailand.
I’m not sure why these posts are showing up on the Starbucks UK page, and really they make it look a bit untidy.
Starbucks’ takes an equally relaxed attitude towards its main Twitter feed, tweeting fewer than 10 times a day on average.
Most of its posts are responses to @mentions, but it also tweets product images and links to its loyalty scheme every couple of days.
The content is generally uninspiring and often repurposed from Facebook, yet the feed has more than 3.5m followers.
While other brands give their social teams the freedom to engage in conversations with followers and inject some personality into their Twitter feeds, Starbucks’ content is really quite bland. Obviously this means it avoids getting caught up in anything controversial, but it also seems fairly unambitious.
The Starbucks UK feed is also relatively quiet compared to the likes of ASOS, tweeting no more than 10 times each day.
A decent proportion of the tweets are responses to customer service queries, but it appears that social is a low priority for the brand.
In fact the most notable thing about Starbucks’ Twitter feed is the momentous fail it suffered during a Christmas promotional campaign at the Natural History Museum.
The coffee brand displayed Twitter messages that used the hashtag #spreadthecheer on a big screen next to an ice rink at the museum, but forgot to actually monitor what was being posted.
Coming hot on the heels of the scandal over Starbucks’ UK taxes, the wall unsurprisingly became a prime target for angry taxpayers...
While its Facebook and Twitter pages are deeply uninspiring, Starbucks has one of the best Pinterest accounts I’ve seen so far.
It only has seven boards but they have more than 900 pins between them, and have attracted more than 76,000 followers. In comparison, Walmart has created 65 boards but has just 12,000 followers, while ASOS's 13 boards have around 25,000.
The boards are full of fantastic images that are almost entirely sourced from third-party sites. I think this is an important part creating a successful Pinterest strategy, and is something that a number of brands don’t seem to grasp.
I recently highlighted several brands that have run Pinterest competitions to drive up follower numbers and engagement, and Starbucks is another brand to add to this list.
In September 2012 it offered followers the chance to win a Verismo System coffee machine if they created a board named ‘It’s possible’ then pinned six images to it, including one of the new machine.
A quick Pinterest search for ‘It’s possible’ shows that it had hundreds, if not thousands of entries. Great success!
Normally when brands neglect their Google+ pages I say that it’s a symptom of the fact that nobody uses the network, but in this case it’s actually in keeping with Starbucks’ overall social strategy.
The coffee brand has more than a million followers and posts content every few days with nearly all of it taken from its Facebook page and Twitter feed, though there’s nothing drastically wrong with this tactic.
Each update attracts hundreds of +1s and up to 100 comments, which is actually a lot better than most of the other brands I’ve looked at.
Ikea, Tesco and Walmart haven't really bothered to update their G+ pages at all, but ASOS and Red Bull post content frequently and as a result have 1.4m and 1.5m followers respectively.
Special mention for Instagram
As I’ve already mentioned, Starbucks stretches every piece of content as far as it can by reusing it across all its social channels, and its Instagram feed is no different.
It looks great and has more than a million followers, but all the content is remarkably familiar.
As with Red Bull, the idea is to promote the brand as part of a lifestyle choice and as something to be enjoyed with friends.
Starbucks also used Instagram to cross-promote a Google Hangout with Maroon 5, showing how the mobile app can be used as part of a multichannel marketing campaign.