by Breean E. Miller. Originally posted on HBG's Brand Innovation for Health blog.

Creating a Third Place

During college, I worked as a Shift Supervisor and Coffee Master at Starbucks.  For the years I toiled behind the Verismo espresso bar, Starbucks had a very clear mission statement: 

“Establish Starbucks as the premier purveyor of the finest coffee in the world while maintaining our uncompromising principles while we grow.”

As a Starbucks Partner (all Starbucks employees are referred to as partners, regardless of their official titles), we were encouraged to enhance the customer experience and create a third place for our guests – a welcoming environment that was neither work nor home.

Commoditization of the Customer Experience – Starbucks Loses Focus

Experiencing cultural and economic shifts, an increasingly saturated marketplace, and stockholder pressure, Starbucks began to move away from its core.

Instead of focusing on offering handcrafted, quality coffee drinks and rich customer experiences, Starbucks moved to integrate new products, trying to appeal to a broader market and compete with the likes of Dunkin Donuts.

They began to produce and sell movies, stock books and CDs in their stores, and removed brew-at-home coffee machines from their shelves.

There was no longer time or budget for coffee seminars – where Coffee Masters, like myself, would create unique educational experiences for our customers.

In fact, I once worked with another Coffee Master to host an event at our neighborhood store where we personally cooked 8 various appetizers and deserts, which each paired with a Starbucks coffee. We called it “Entertaining with Coffee”. Over 20 customers attended. It was amazing.

All manual espresso machines were replaced with push-button versions, offering less customization for customers and requiring less knowledge and skill from baristas.

Starbucks stores became the same. The opened new stores rapidly, with little thought on creating distinct customer experiences. New store design went down the path of most large chains, with every new store looking just the same as the last.

It seemed, just like coffee itself, the Starbucks experience had become a commodity. It was interchangeable with its competitors, like Caribou Coffee.

The result? Starbucks lost its luster. The third place experience, gone. The specialty, once differentiated drinks could be found anywhere coffee was sold, from McDonald’s to gas stations. Store environments became boring and unwelcoming. They even charged for WIFI.

Return of the Third Place

So, after a brief hiatus, former Starbucks CEO Howard Shultz – the man who worked so hard to differentiate the Starbucks third place experience, and company culture – returned to the helm. 

The books and movies left the shelves. Drink quality improved. Once more, store design became creative and welcoming.

To celebrate the company’s 40th anniversary, Starbucks refreshed its brand identity, placing more focus on the iconic Siren.

Recently, it seems, Starbucks has also realigned its corporate vision, mission and culture.

Their new mission?

“To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time.”

It seems that Starbucks has finally realized that they are not in the coffee business, but that they are in the customer experience business.

In a follow-up post, I will tell you about my recent customer experience during the launch of Starbucks Evenings, a new store concept that offers food and alcoholic drinks after 4pm.