Yet today it’s very clear that the Starbucks story has evolved into something more complicated in the public eye. Like Wal-Mart, the company has found that the sheer size of its success forces a reexamination of many of the practices that fueled its growth. Has the company itself changed radically, or could it be that it has simply crossed some line, some boundary — entered a bold new world in which a profoundly different set of eyes are focused on its practices?
This issue is raised by the new book Starbucked: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce, and Culture, by journalist Taylor Clark. Clark’s effort represents the most modern take on the company. Earlier books have been one-sided, idealistic, or parable-like (that is, halo-builders), but Clark’s ambivalent tell-all could be spawned only by the tremendous scale of the company’s success. Clark warns that Starbucks could put mom-and-pop shops out of business, but doesn’t. And explains that Starbucks has helped farmers in developing countries by paying more for beans, but only when it was pressured to do so. And says that because the workforce is relatively young and healthy, the company’s policy of providing health-care benefits isn’t quite as beneficent as many outsiders believe. Clark comes across as the fictional Dr. Evil (from the Austin Powers movies) pressing his son Scott to be bad by trying to add “evil” to his son’s dream of becoming a vet (“an evil vet?”) or working in a petting zoo (“an evil petting zoo?”). Could this be “evil Starbucks?” Um, not really.
What’s clear is that for Starbucks, as for any other company that relies on powerful brands to resonate with the public, the ability to craft and communicate a compelling story will continue to have a role in its success. For many years the company has shown genius at delivering on a promise — Starbucks comforts, delights, provides security, and offers familiarity, and does so with a veneer of respectability. Buying at Starbucks means buying in, essentially; you are paying a premium for your fancy drinks, and in return you support a touching story in which employees are respected, customers are valued, indie culture is supported, and bean farmers in developing countries are paid fairly.
At the same time, however, it is important to recognize that although having a good story can play a key role in raising money, engendering customer and employee loyalty, and serving as a basis for making decisions, it’s no magic formula. Couple it with a terrific ability to execute on a detailed strat-egy and you have positioned yourself for success. As Starbucks faces a challenging future, with dynamic markets and growing competition, its own ability to evolve will determine the next chapter in its story.
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Tom Ehrenfeld a contributing editor at strategy+business, is a former writer and editor at Harvard Business Review and Inc. magazine. His work has also appeared in Newsweek and the New York Times. Based in Cambridge, Mass., he is the author of The Startup Garden: How Growing a Business Grows You (McGraw-Hill, 2001).