Starbucks: A Culture of Warmth and Belonging

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I don’t know about you, but coffee has this unique way of comforting me. The warmth in the morning that you can hold up to your face and a familiar aroma that relaxes and puts you at ease. The day could be already barreling by in unexpected ways, but coffee in hand can be such a comfortable constant.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Starbucks took the sensorial experience of consuming coffee and incorporated it into their brand values. This is a job well done for whoever wrote their values.

“Creating a culture of warmth and belonging, where everyone is welcome.”

This is a value with a nod to the brand’s core product, but more so, a value that fully supports the brand’s purpose of providing a third place that inspires and nurtures, where everyone is welcome. As is usually the case, a lot of people probably didn’t know that’s one of Starbucks brand values. Until around April 13, 2018, when I’m sure the “About Our Company” page on the Starbucks website got a lot more views from journalists, loyalists and concerned patrons.

The Starbucks brand is one that has always been known for goodwill and inclusion, a leader in best practices in many areas of human resource and product sustainability. So what happens when what you've been taught as consumers through brand experience is suddenly disproved in reality? Fair trade seems to matter a lot less when fair treatment is on the line, doesn’t it? Customers and employees alike, immediately begin to question their connection and alignment with the brand.

But when a brand has been clear about its purpose all along, it is a lot easier to remind everyone of that purpose, than it is to all of a sudden start telling a new story.

Starbucks closed their stores yesterday afternoon and everyone knew about it. They made a mistake in April and before they gave you much of a chance to fully protest or boycott them, they owned it and showed you they were handling it. They were able to say, “this was incongruent with what we stand for”, they didn’t have to say “get to know our brand and what matters to us”, most people already had some idea. Closing their doors is the way that Starbucks shows us what is important to them. The same way that you as a consumer might shop with a reusable tote bag to show you care about the environment or as a social media user might endorse a brand you are a fan of.

We must have physical and external ways to show others the things we care about, the things that drive us internally.  

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For Starbucks that external display is companywide closure, and this isn’t the only one that’s happened in my coffee drinking years. Starbucks had a companywide closure ten years ago, in 2008, when they wanted to re-educate employees on how to pull the perfect espresso and reinvigorate a unique customer experience. This time, they closed doors companywide, to re-educate employees on what it means to be inclusive and welcoming to all. Proving that inclusiveness is also a signature Starbucks product, they care about it just as much as espresso. After all, many people go to Starbucks for a taste of community, not just a taste of coffee.  

Some people have asked if it was a marketing ploy, but I believed Starbucks Founder, Howard Schultz, when he said there are a lot of other ways they could have spent the dollars invested and lost yesterday if it was just for marketing. And while a four-hour closure for training and an integration into employee onboarding might still have critics, it should be well-regarded for the way it outwardly expresses a driving internal principle for the brand. If only we could have different, more positive catalysts for such expressions. 

Schultz called this “one of the most important transformational moments in the history of our company.” Just as Starbucks has been a leader in the past, I’m eager to see the impact this transformation might have on other brands as well. And as I round this out, I find myself still sitting with the question that sparked this writing….

Why does it continue to seem that things have to go wrong first, for people and businesses to talk about and more outwardly share their values?