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Published: June 10, 2008

 
 

Starbucks and the Power of Story

How the coffee retailer uses its own narrative to brew global success.

Image by Daniel Pelavin

Why do certain com­panies inspire shelves of great books, while other notable businesses inspire few? Starbucks, a 37-year-old company, has generated more than two dozen major books in its short lifetime. There are books that extract life lessons from the company’s growth, books that share recipes from the company’s coffee mavens, and even one recent title preaching The Gospel According to Starbucks (really). No fewer than five Starbucks executives have penned their own works.

There are so many books, from so many angles, mining meaning from the Starbucks story, that the question isn’t so much whether they are good or bad. The real question is, Why has this single organization spawned such a library? Could it be that the company’s most enduring product is neither its cup of joe nor its safe indie culture, but the Starbucks story?

That’s certainly a safe conclusion to draw from a close reading of the Starbucks tomes. The legend was first writ large in 1997 in founder and CEO Howard Schultz’s Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time (written with Dori Jones Yang), and recently embellished in barista Michael Gates Gill’s How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else. Recent books like 2007’s Grande Expectations: A Year in the Life of Starbucks’ Stock, by journalist Karen Blumenthal, reflect the way that pundits use the company as a tilted mirror that reflects what they care to see in it. To be sure, the story is by no means fictional, as the key operating principles described in books like Built for Growth: Expanding Your Business around the Corner or across the Globe, by Arthur Rubinfeld and Collins Hemingway, and A New Brand World: 8 Principles for Achieving Brand Leadership in the 21st Century, by Scott Bedbury with Stephen Fenichell, reveal. Yet one needs a filter — or, better, one needs to see through filters — to read these books effectively.

The point of this article is neither to prove nor to disprove the Starbucks story. So much of the Starbucks myth resides in an aspirational wonderland, a world so many business players want to believe in, that mere facts are insufficient to illuminate the deeper Truth. What matters is acknowledging this story, assessing its value in the success of the company, isolating the truly meaningful operating principles and practices behind the company’s growth, and trying to sort out the important lessons that can be drawn from all this.

The company certainly has produced and communicated a powerful story. It is a comforting, inspiring, and altruistic vision of the ennobling power of human capitalism. Here’s one way Schultz describes it in Pour Your Heart Into It: “Starbucks was attempting to accomplish something more ambitious than just grow a profitable enterprise. We had a mission, to educate consumers everywhere about fine coffee. We had a vision, to create an atmosphere in our stores that drew people in and gave them a sense of wonder and romance in the midst of their harried lives. We had an idealistic dream, that our com­pany could be far more than the paradigm defined by corporate America in the past.”

This story is grand enough to serve as a setting for book-length subplots. It’s compelling enough to fuel endless speculation about the value of the company stock. And it’s rich enough to launch numerous business fables — some of them worthy — about the benefits of good management.

A Coffee Shop Epiphany
Michael Gates Gill’s How Starbucks Saved My Life provides an expansive opening scene for the modern Starbucks story. In this polished memoir about Gill’s fall from privilege and eventual salvation in the confines of one Manhattan store, this well-connected son of New Yorker editor Brendan Gill shares how life didn’t pan out as planned. On the way up the ladder, Gill parlays his Yale connections into a job at advertising agency J. Walter Thompson, eventually rising to become creative director. Canned at age 51, Gill then spirals downward. His solo business tanks, he loses his family through infidelity, and he then realizes how vulnerable he is when, uninsured, he is diagnosed with a brain tumor.

 
 
 
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Starbucks Resources
Works mentioned in this review.

  1. Scott Bedbury with Stephen Fenichell, A New Brand World: 8 Principles for Achieving Brand Leadership in the 21st Century (Viking, 2002), 240 pages
  2. Karen Blumenthal, Grande Expectations: A Year in the Life of Starbucks’ Stock (Crown Business, 2007), 309 pages
  3. Taylor Clark, Starbucked: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce, and Culture (Little, Brown, 2007), 297 pages
  4. Michael Gates Gill, How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else (Gotham Books, 2007), 265 pages
  5. John Moore, Tribal Knowledge: Business Wisdom Brewed from the Grounds of Starbucks Corporate Culture (Kaplan, 2006), 252 pages
  6. Phil Rosenzweig, The Halo Effect — and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers (Free Press, 2007), 260 pages
  7. Arthur Rubinfeld and Collins Hemingway, Built for Growth: Expanding Your Business around the Corner or across the Globe (Wharton School, 2005), 268 pages
  8. Howard Schultz and Dori Jones Yang, Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time (Hyperion, 1997), 358 pages
  9. Leonard Sweet, The Gospel According to Starbucks: Living with a Grande Passion (Waterbrook Press, 2007), 222 pages
 
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