If it’s sincerity that’s important, how does Starbucks measure up when it calls itself by another name and sports a sign in the window stating “inspired by Starbucks?”
15th Avenue Coffee & Tea, Starbucks’ recent localization experiment, opened in June 2009 in Seattle on a site where a Starbucks had previously stood. Offering locally sourced food, designed with local recycled building materials and sponsoring community-building events, the effort surely is both a recognition of the consumer desire for personal touch and a search for a viable local story. If you’re a Starbucks lover, you might read this as an attempt to go back to their roots, back to what made you fall in love with them in the first place. If you’re inclined to look at it another way, you might feel that Starbucks’ attempt to recreate for profit the kind of local coffee shop they largely put out of business is, well, something less than love-able.
Pundits are referring to this new kind of branded unbranded creature as a 'stealth store' – sounding much more sinister and corporate than welcoming and authentic. One blogger, Dan, mentions how he is bothered by "the 'hand-stamped' cups... the logo is in the exact same place on every cup and the print is the same fade… Isn't that kinda like seeing a 'local' sign hanging in the produce section at Wal-mart?" Well, yes, Dan, it is exactly like that.
If you want to talk coffee shops, Mud is local, legit. The name, the design aesthetic, even the business model all successfully reflect the character of the local neighborhood, New York's East Village. This is the feel Starbucks is going for with the launch of 15th Avenue Coffee & Tea. Mud’s website, on the other hand, explains that the opening of side by side outlets of the ‘generic coffee monster’ inspired Mud’s founders to double park their truck out front and serve their own coffee out of it.
Then came the orange truck, and it parked directly in the middle shining like the sun. It served everybody with a smile, and it had fair prices. It made the best cup of coffee in New York City, and it didn't discriminate. The smokers smoked, the dogs had bones, and it played sweet soul music. And the chain was broken.
We don’t know about you, but we have a tear in our eye just reading that. It rings true because it is true. Mud didn’t write their local story, they lived it. 15th Avenue, on other hand is a marketeer’s invention, much like the McDonald’s ‘From Here’ campaign. And, in the same way, it feels at best like an afterthought, and at worst like a fraud.
Turns out, it’s impossible to be something you’re not. So if you’re a large corporate brand, what to do in order to win the affections of consumers seeking more personal experiences?
How about beer?
That’s what Duane Reade is doing, and it’s been well received so far. The Williamsburg store, for example, has a ‘beer bar’ - several walls lined with refillable glass beer bottles called growlers, and local and national beer brands in bottles and cans also available. It’s all part of the company’s larger effort to recognize and cater to the very specific local needs of New York City’s vastly differing neighborhoods. If I live in Williamsburg, my pharmacist will refill my growler with my favorite brew. If I live in Tribeca, I can buy my children toys while refilling my birth control prescription. Nothing inspires love like feeling understood. And product or service offerings that are customized to a consumer’s needs engender just that feeling.
Design plays an important role. Duane Reade’s growler bar is intentionally reminiscent of a New York City subway station. Good aesthetics support the business model both consciously and subliminally to engage consumers in the experience and wrap them in brand love. (Design can also turn things sour. As successful as many of Duane Reade’s merchandising and interiors choices have been, others have hit the wrong note. Private label foods like nuts, candies and coffee have a hokey personality that seems out of sync with their intended consumers: jaded New Yorkers.)
It appears there are two routes to an authentic local story. Either you’re born with one or you create one. The first is the Mud way, the way of mom-and-pops since the beginning of time, and it works. But brands that try to write a mythology (or revive one from an earlier era) will always smell wrong to consumers, because authenticity like Mud’s is so effortlessly truthful.
Duane Reade, however, has touched on a sincere and effective way to create a localstory: localize your offering. It’s a way to show you care, which is, in turn, a way to earn love. This is the successful route for existing large brands. Remember McDonald’s? Consumers may have hated their locally sourced produce campaign, but they loved the local store redesigns and food offerings, which addressed real needs and showed they were truly listening to their customers.
So Duane Reade, if you’re out there reading this: Tribeca moms want growlers too.