Character: We develop Characters and Story Frameworks for brands.

Brands that outrun their own story

We've been thinking recently about different kinds of brand stories, and particularly about whether there are some brands whose very success causes them to outrun the story on which their growth was based.

Starbucks' struggle to rebuild its brand is what first prompted this question. Starbucks originally promised to provide a "third place," separate from home and work. In terms of story, what makes a third place into something really interesting is the conflict between everyday and indulgent. In its early years, the brand played with those two energies in interesting ways. The indulgent energy was conveyed by the comfortable chairs, the secret language and the implicit invitation to stay as long as you liked--and of course by the exotic new coffee drinks. The everyday energy of the story was represented by the easy accessibility of the experience and by the very idea of a simple cup of coffee.

The problem for Starbucks from a story point of view was that the very success of the company shifted the center of gravity from indulgent to everyday. By the time Howard Schultz's famous memo was leaked to the press in early 2007, it was clear that everything the company had done to accelerate its growth--the automatic espresso machines, the range (and aroma) of food offerings, the assembly-line efficiency of the service--had transformed the story from the third place into the QSR of coffee shops. Once there was a Starbucks kiosk in my grocery store, 100 yards from the Starbucks store at the end of the mall, the everydayness of Starbucks had completely overwhelmed the indulgent energy in its story. The way the company has been struggling for almost three years to rebuild its brand suggests to us that Starbucks' story has gotten out of balance in a way that is difficult to correct.

By contrast, during the same three-year period, Walmart has done a very creditable job of resurrecting a brand that had fallen much deeper in the hole than Starbucks. We think the difference is in the kind of story that underpins the brand. Walmart's story, at its best, is about the conflict between winning and serving. Walmart was always an ambitious company, but it was ambitious in the service of its customers. Sam Walton's vision was to bring the good life to small communities that had been overcharged and underserved. In the decade following Sam Walton's death, the service energy drained out of the story, until, by the middle years of this decade, the Walmart story was all about winning for its own sake. And in the world of story, a character who is motivated by a desire to win for the sake of winning is almost always the villain.

In the past three years, Walmart has re-embraced the service energy in its story, without ever letting go of its fierce desire to win as well. Unlike Starbucks, Walmart's size and ubiquity can actually be an asset--as long as its success is seen to be in service to something bigger than itself. That's why the sustainability campaign has been so central to Walmart's turnaround.

So how can Starbucks embrace its conflict in order to infuse new energy and authenticity into its story? Could it perhaps redefine indulgent in the way Walmart redefined serving? Or maybe the answer is to find a better articulation of the conflict, possibly substituting special for indulgent. Creatively, the latest Starbucks advertising and promotional work seems to be tugging in that direction.

I'm interested in what you think, both about Starbucks' efforts to recapture the authentic energy in its story and about other brands whose success might have swept them into a blind alley in which their business has outrun their story to the detriment of both. Drop me a line if you have a moment, or post a comment.


Such an interesting analysis of Starbucks and Walmart. It is dead right. Starbucks has definitely become more mundane and it no longer holds any special charm for me. The idea of lounging there with a good book on a Saturday afternoon has ceased to have any magic for me. But here in Dallas I can't find any substitutes, so that's working in their favor.

Very well said. Spot on with respect to Walmart. On Starbucks: yes indeed, but I also wonder if they missed the possibilities of the third place, the evolution of it. I think Starbucks at it’s best is the hub for creativity and thinking and relationships – look at popular Starbucks and you see designers, students, entrepreneurs, etc. That would suggest that the conflict is maybe escape/relaxation versus energy/creativity. With that story they would think differently about products and services.

Starbucks problem is as old as time, almost. They took something that was an everyday indulgence and made it ordinary, except the price. Indulgence doesn't mean special occasion, but it does mean special. They have turned Banana Republic into Old Navy. Still very useful, but not worth paying more for. It used to feel like a private club, and now it feels like 7-11. They got greedy and lost their way what they represented as a brand and who their core consumer was. I knew they jumped the shark when they started serving "Lemonade" I assumed was fresh made, and found out it was Country Time...for $4.00!

Very interesting analysis. Like Kyle wrote this problem is as old as time and it seems we are not learning from it! Why do companies not focus on what makes them special to their clients and improve that differentiation to the max? Greed ? The pressure from the quarterly report of public companies that forces companies to focus only on short term results? Lack of vision from top managers?