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Laying it out here now: Starbucks does not have the best coffee.

I’m no coffee aficionado, but Starbucks just doesn’t top the list of coffee for me. (I’m more a connoisseur of Mountain Dew. A Dew-noisseur, if you will.) Don’t get me wrong, I like Starbucks’ coffee, and it still tops stuff like gas station coffee by a mile. But if I’m hitting up a drive thru to grab a coffee, I’m going to either McDonald's or Dunkin’ Donuts first. Not only do I feel like their coffee is better tasting, but it’s undoubtedly cheaper. So much cheaper, in fact, that I can generally get two cups of coffee at McDs or Dunkin’ than I can at Starbucks.

I know I’m not alone in this. Many I work with definitely echo my sentiments about Dunkin’s coffee, and my wife agrees with me about the magic that comes from McDonald's. Yet Starbucks still remains top of mind when thinking about coffee. And if you were to ask most young people what their preference for coffee is, their answer will likely be Starbucks.

So what is it about Starbucks that makes them so great? Some might say the ambiance that the physical locations provide, and I can definitely understand that. With two little girls at home, it’s hard to get much done around the house, so every Tuesday after work, I go to a Starbucks to work on professional development stuff. And when my wife and I want to visit friends to have a conversation, the choice is always Starbucks.

That’s all great, but what about instances when you don’t plan to hang out at the physical Starbucks location? Why is it that people still choose Starbucks when going on a coffee run? After all, you’re removing the physical location element, so you should theoretically be more inclined to choose the coffee you like best. Like McDonald’s.

(Sidebar for any McDonald’s reps reading this: I’m plugging your coffee pretty hard in this post. How about you make me a sponsor and, say, give me free coffee for life? I’ll settle for a year. Thx in advance.)

I’ve already sort of answered that question. I noted that many people, including myself, choose Starbucks as that “fourth place” people go to to connect, to visit, to relax, or to study. Starbucks has become so closely associated to that environment that the coffee aspect is secondary, without us consciously acknowledging that.

It’s about more than just coffee.

Their coffee has become a symbol for something larger than itself. Actually, let me be more specific: the Starbucks coffee cups have become a symbol for something larger than just coffee. When you see their coffee cups, your mind associates that to the experiences you’ve had in their physical locations, regardless of where you stand in that moment. You could be in an office, your house, or a shopping mall: when you see a Starbucks cup, you subconsciously think of connection, relaxation, focus, and other things.

Taking it a step further, when people offer to get you a cup of Starbucks coffee, what they are often inadvertently doing is something larger than providing you with menial, bodily nourishment. The offering of a Starbucks cup of coffee is an invitation of connection.

It’s our generation’s symbol of unification.

Okay, we got really meta there, but I hope you get my point. Of course, this extends beyond just coffee and Starbucks, so let’s generalize what I’m saying here. People often associate experiences and feelings to physical objects, and the object itself can be lost amongst the grander scheme of those associations. I used Starbucks as prime example here, but I could have easily substituted a number of other examples, too. Let’s fire through a couple of those:

  • Campbell’s tomato soup tastes awful, but it still sells well because people associate it to stuff like warming up after having a fun time in the snow

I could go on for days. I’ll close out with this: when you create a new product, consider the entire experience that surrounds that product. As we’ve uncovered here, the most successful products have captured this essence very well. I can say with a certain level of confidence that Starbucks’ coffee wouldn’t be nearly as successful as it is today if it didn’t get this right.

Consider that the next time you get a cup of coffee. Until the next post, I’ll be sipping my large sugar-free iced French vanilla coffee from McDonald’s, courtesy of Ronald McDonald himself. *wink*

Machine learning engineer, spiritual explorer, girl dad

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