How Efficiency Can Kill or Support a Brand

Above: Starbucks cups from a recent trip. You can see my wife (cup on the left) is more into the customization aspects than I am. Decoded, the left reads: 1/2 decaf, non-fat, xtra-hot, 1 raw sugar latte. The right: latte. To her defense, she normally wouldn’t get a half-decaf…

Read an interesting bit in PSFK (originally in the Wall Street Journal) about the rise and semi-fall of the Starbucks brand. It talked about how one of the vehicles that has helped Starbucks growth has also resulted in damaging the brand: the automatic espresso machine. From Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz:

“When we went to automatic espresso machines, we solved a major problem in terms of speed of service and efficiency. At the same time, we overlooked the fact that we would remove much of the romance and theatre that was in play with the use of the La Marzocco machines. This specific decision became even more damaging when the height of the machines, which are now in thousands of stores, blocked the visual sight line the customer previously had to watch the drink being made, and for the intimate experience with the barista.”

Think about what makes your brand unique… in this case, it was the experience of ordering your drink and watching the barista craft it for you. In order to speed up the process, they tried automating it, which has started to kill the experience. If I’m going to order a $3.50 caffeinated beverage, I don’t want it to be automated. I want someone to take their time with it. I remember the first time I got a latte from one of the automatic machines. It started to erode my belief that Starbucks made a good latte. Granted, Stumptown, Tiny’s and the like have contributed to this as well, with baristas who are truly artists, and use micro-roasted beans… but that’s beside the point. Or maybe it isn’t. The fact that many of the locally-owned coffee shops in Portland don’t use automatic espresso machines differentiates them from a brand standpoint from Starbucks, the automated coffee giant. Anyone can push some buttons and make an espresso. Those that know a machine and its nuances can create something special.

There are other brands, like Toyota, that rely extensively on efficiency in their process of building cars. This story from Fast Company highlights the benefits from continual efficiency. What I like about this story is the fact that it’s not technology that’s making the factory more efficient, it’s people who are thinking about how to use technology in more efficient ways. With the Starbucks example, it seems like people didn’t think about how the technology would change the experience, but used technology because, on paper, it would increase revenues. The factory at Toyota isn’t directly part of the customer experience, though it’s efficiency can reflect back on the price of a vehicle, the environmental impact of creating that vehicle, and how quickly that vehicle can get into the marketplace. (Which is different from VW’s factory experience in Dresden, Germany. But that’s a different story.)

Toyota creating a more efficient factory directly supports their brand. Starbucks making a faster latte doesn’t support their brand. Efficiency doesn’t necessarily mean better. If your brand is about enjoying an experience, make sure people get to enjoy that experience. If you rush them past it, what’s left is a button pusher and a mediocre “I know what to expect, and it’s not all that great” experience. And who is going to rave about that?

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