Starbucks chief Howard Schultz says some amazing things in an interview with Harvard Business Review (July-August 2010). “We are living in a society where there is a need for human connection and a sense of community.” Not surprising, perhaps. But he goes on to say “Our role as leaders is to celebrate the human connection that we have been able to create as a company.” He also says that the Starbucks brand is defined not just by the quality of the coffee “but also, most importantly, by the relationship that the barista has with the customer and whether the customer feels valued, appreciated, and respected.”
Now, it’s easy to be cynical about this. To me one of the amazing feats of Starbucks is to raise the price of a cup of coffee from the 25-50 cents I used to pay to something that can approach four dollars – an 8 to 16 times increase. However wonderful the coffee itself – and it ain’t bad at all – we all know that the cost of the coffee is a very small fraction of the price. So if Starbucks has to charge for something other than coffee, it could say it was charging for its skilled staff, its overheads, a comfy seat, internet access, or other justifiable costs. But, ah, excuse me, no. It is charging for connecting its customers. And not primarily to each other, but to the Starbucks staff. It’s like the Church of Rome passing round the plate not for God, or church maintenance, or the incense and music, or the Pope’s pronouncements, but for the connection offered to the local priest.
And if Starbucks is all about connection, how come it has started to sell its products – including instant coffee – through supermarkets? There’s no connection to Starbucks or its staff, except through the product itself.
I don’t want to be cynical. If you read the whole interview, the thing that shines through is Howard Schultz’s sincerity. He really believes this connection stuff and how it relates to Starbucks. Poor man. You almost see him go dewy-eyed when he tells the story of a woman barista donating a kidney to stop a customer, who had become a friend, from dying. It’s a moving story, and as Schultz says, something like this doesn’t happen very often.
And yet – as someone who cares not a fig about Starbucks but a great deal about how we connect with each other – I have to say the interview made me think that connection is becoming overhyped by commercial interests. It’s a sad day if we have to become connected by a glitzy brand, which, do not forget, has to work hard to keep voracious shareholders happy. As my dear departed mother used to repeat, the best things in life are free. Connection is best when it’s freely sought and freely offered, with absolutely no commercial motive whatsoever. Anyone can connect with anyone, every day, at zero cost.
Only connect! And please, Mr Schultz, keep the coffee out of it! – Richard Koch