CONNECTING WITH CONSUMERS

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Sunday, August 19 2012

The Website is Back

your_image.jpgSome technical difficulties. Sorry for any inconvenience while the site was crashed.  Hats off to my local shaman P. for restoring what Webhostingpad could not (despite my $25 restore payment).  I will be posting from time to time here, but beginning in September, my new site http://connectwithconsumers.blogspot.com, will take over - unless I change my mind, but you will be the first to know.

Monday, February 27 2012

Starbucks Disconnects

It's one thing to write about all the wonderful things that some forward-thinking companies are doing in joining the consumer conversation, based on second-hand reports and fancy websites.  But when it comes down to interacting directly with those firms, a dramatically different picture often emerges.  What I have been learning these past few months as I finish the preparation of my next book, Psychological Foundations of Marketing, behind all the social media bells and whistles, many companies may talk the talk, but in the end, it's all bullshit.  Case in point:  Starbucks.

Despite all the praiseworthy pages I scribed in Connecting With Consumers about how Starbucks, after some growing pains, gets it when it comes to customer engagement, when I asked for a little something from them, all I got was a door in my face.  Now, I must admit, I am not a loyal Starbucks customer.  In fact, the only time I've ever been a Starbucks customer is when I was stuck in a Dulles airport terminal (prior to its recent renovation) in Washington and was desperate for a cup of java.  As I waited for my beverage to be prepared at the Starbucks stand, I found myself counting the cockroaches ducking in and out of the containers of straws, spoons, and napkins.  No big deal, I live in Paris, where there are 40,000+ alternatives to the handful of Starbucks stores dispersed around town.  Who needs Starbucks?

Well, actually, I do, or at least thought I did.  In chapter 3 of my new book, my discussion of perception includes some examples of how company logos often are subtly changed over time, to keep them looking up-to-date, to freshen up a brand image, whatever.  One example was to show Starbucks' recent logo change, and here is what I intended to include:




These images appear on untold websites, no doubt without any permission rights obtained from the company.  For my forthcoming book, however, I am understandably obliged by my publisher (Routledge/Taylor & Francis) to obtain the rights from the image owners.  When I attempted to do so from Starbucks, no matter how clearly I explained how the images were to be used, how I wrote glowingly about the company in my previous books, and so on, all I received was a series of, basically, impersonal emails.  Here is a sampling:

1st Email:

Hello Allan,

 

Thank you for contacting Starbucks Coffee Company.

Per Starbucks company policy, we do not grant permission to download our proprietary images. This applies to trademarks, logos and other graphic images displayed on Starbucks.com. 

 

For more information, please review our Terms of Use at http://www.starbucks.com/about-us/company-information/online-policies/terms-of-use and read the information under "Copyright and Trademark" and "Personal Use."

 

Thanks again for your interest in Starbucks Coffee Company.  If you have any other questions or comments regarding our site, please email us at webmaster@starbucks.com.

 

 Warm regards,

 

Ryan H 

Customer Relations

Starbucks Coffee Company

800 STARBUC (782-7282)

Monday through Friday, 5 AM to 8PM (PST)



2nd Email:

Dear AJ,

 

Thank you for contacting Starbucks Coffee Company.

 

I do apologize but unfortunately we are unable to provide any contact information for our CEO Howard Schultz.

 If you have any further questions or concerns that I was unable to address, please feel free to let me know. 

 

Warm Regards,

 

Emmanuel D

Customer Relations

Starbucks Coffee Company

800 STARBUC (782-7282)

Monday through Friday, 5AM to 8PM (PST)


3rd Email:

Dear @Starbucks,

 

Thank you for contacting Starbucks Coffee Company.

 

 Unfortunately, due to the volume requests we receive, we’re unable to grant the information about the company beyond what we make publicly available.

 

For more information about Starbucks, including our most recent annual reports, visit our website at www.starbucks.com/aboutus and also www.starbucks.com/.  There you will find the Global Responsibility reports, our latest press releases, SEC filings, and general company information.  For industry information such as market share, please visit the Specialty Coffee Association website at www.scaa.org. 

 

We also recommend that you check out www.businesswire.com. This useful website contains media releases, a company profile, and links to stock quotes and our SEC filings.

 

Thanks again for your interest in Starbucks Coffee Company, and good luck with your project.

 

Sincerely,

 

Jaime 

Customer Relations

Starbucks Coffee Company

800 STARBUC (782-7282)

Monday through Friday, 5AM to 8PM (PST)



4th Email:

Dear AJ,

 

Thank you for contacting Starbucks Coffee Company.

 

I am truly sorry about your disappointment and frustration. However as stated by the previous agent we're unable to grant the information about the company beyond what we make publicly available.

 

I want you to know that we take feedback from our loyal customers seriously. Because you know better than anyone else what you want from Starbucks, I will share this with the  appropriate departments here in our corporate office.

 

We have made a promise to our customers to provide outstanding products and service.  I know that this is a primary reason why you visit Starbucks and I understand how disappointing it is when we let you down.

 

Thank you so much for giving us the opportunity to improve what we do.

 

If you have any further questions or concerns that I was unable to address, please feel free to let me know. 

 

Thanks again,

  

Anjelika R

Customer Relations

Starbucks Coffee Company

800 STARBUC (782-7282)

Monday through Friday, 5AM to 8PM (PST)

Share your ideas at www.mystarbucksidea.com




5th Email:

Dear AJ,

 

Thank you for contacting Starbucks Coffee Company.

 

I am sorry, sir, that we are unable to answer your question adequately enough, however we are unable to provide you with any other resources other than the ones made available to you on the website at www.starbucks.com/aboutus and also www.starbucks.com/. While I admire your determination to find the resources to put in your book, the reports that are made public on the above two web links are the only resources that are available.

 

As previously stated, you will find the Global Responsibility reports, our latest press releases, SEC filings, and general company information on the Starbucks website. You can also find industry information such as market share, at www.scaa.org. 

 

If you have any further questions or concerns that I was unable to address, please feel free to let me know. I wish you luck with your book, and hope the information that we can provide will be enough.

 

Warm Regards,

 

Amber C


Customer Relations

Starbucks Coffee Company

800 STARBUC (782-7282)

Monday through Friday, 5AM to 8PM (PST)


As is pretty evident, these are all pretty much form responses which seemed to all ignore the essence of my basic request.  Hardly indicative of a company that is supposed to be so good at 'listening' to consumers.  Several attempts to discuss my request by telephone with someone other than a 'Customer Relations' worker resulted in my turning around in circles and racking up a hefty long-distance phone bill.  So, Starbucks can rest assured that the images that appear here will never appear in any publication written by me, including this website.  I have no idea how the images got onto this site. 

My summary reaction is that Starbucks is a joke.

I also requested permission to run the following in-store poster that appeared in Starbucks stores shortly after the September 11th terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.





This poster, as is now widely known, was viewed by some consumers as too close for comfort.  Here is the passage in my forthcoming book that explains how this incident provides a good illustration of the subjectivity of consumer perception:

Starbucks was forced to pull from 3000 North American outlets its “Collapse Into Cool” promotional poster for the popular coffee chain’s new TazoCitrus drinks when numerous consumers complained that the poster’s imagery (flying insects surrounding two tall iced beverages) was overly reminiscent of the September 11 attacks on New York’s World Trade Center (see Exhibit 3.2).  Although the ad had nothing to do with the event, the combination of the term “collapse” and the unfortunate choice of illustration was perceived by some consumers as insensitive on the part of the company and a malicious attempt to capitalize on the misfortunes of others (Roeper, 2002).   This example reflects the fact that although people may receive information about the environment through the senses essentially in the same way, perception tends to be more individualistic.  Thus, what one consumer might perceive as a rather innocuous promotional poster from an internationally-known coffeehouse chain, another may interpret as an insensitive and offensive allusion to a national tragedy.


I can better understand Starbucks' reluctance to have this image appear again in the public eye (despite the fact that it too can be found on countless Internet sites, such as the snopes.com site, which debunks the original charges that the association to the World Trade Center was intentional), yet when I asked for permission rights, all I got in return were more of those emails you see above.

Starbucks isn't the only culprit - in subsequent installments, I will detail how the responses I received from other supposedly engagement-friendly companies, such as The Gap, Colgate-Palmolive, Nespresso, were worse than those from Starbucks.  If this is how these companies treat authors who are offering an opportunity to discuss the marketing practices in an innocuous way, I can only imagine how they treat customers with complaints.  Well, as for Starbucks, there already is some indication of that - the Starbucked.com website that I discussed in Connecting With Consumers is still up and running.  Perhaps those cockroaches were symbolic of the brand after all.

Friday, July 30 2010

Apple's Bad Connection

By now, most people are familiar with the problems surrounding Apple's iPhone 4 launch, but let's consider how Apple failed to connect with consumers and some of the still evolving repercussions. It's one thing to dissect the great cases in which companies do something phenomenal to connect, but it turns out that the misconnections can be equally informative.

The new iPhone's antenna problems, which resulted in mounting complaints about dropped calls and poor reception, was initially treated by CEO Steve Jobs as a non-problem.  As Slate's Farhad Manjoo pointed out in his July 15th column, titled to strike a chord with dissatisfied purchasers, 'Steve Jobs Owes Us An Apology':  Jobs' first instinct was to insist that the phone is perfect, and that it's the users who are crazy. "There is no reception issue."  Great way to endear your company, product, and brand to consumers who have shelled out cash to purchase your offering - product great, user stupid.  Citing a basic law of physics that afflicts not only Apple's app phone, but all its competitors as well, Jobs simply focused on how users weren't holding the phone correctly in their hand, and that people like to go after the top dog, which is why Apple was receiving the brunt of the criticism. 

The company initially offered a single fix, the promise to improve the accuracy of the phone's signal bars. But when the independent Bible of consumer product ratings in the US, Consumer Reports, begged to differ, and advised consumers not to purchase the flawed device, Apple had to quickly turn to Plan B.  (Apple apparently deleted references to the Consumer Reports' evaluation from its support forums.)  Plan B as a course of action probably couldn't have been more misguided.  This was the press conference in which Jobs appeared on-stage, obviously pissed that he had to descend from his lofty heights to address such a picayune problem, and offered everyone a free case, which could serve as a kind of bumper against the antenna problem.  If you haven't seen the announcement, click the link below and you'll understand why Manjoo in his July 16 follow-up piece at Slate ('Here's Your Free Case, Jerk' ) referred to Jobs as 'condescending' (and I'll add, 'arrogant')
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aiifsX0iv0Q

                                                

The fallout from Apple's strategy has been pretty brutal for a company that in the past could do no wrong.  I think the consequences were pretty accurately summarized in a  Chapatte editorial cartoon appearing July 22 in the International Herald Tribune.  This is a clear example of negative publicity for Apple. The message is very clear: Apple doesn't listen.  Forget about having a conversation - when Apple 'converses' it means that Apple is talking at us, not with us, which is the polar opposite of the key message of Connecting With Consumers.   



Now, imagine what that message communicates about Apple's brand identity, which in the past has been all about innovation, passion, creativity, empowerment through technology, people-driven product design, and you can fill in the rest.  But first have a look at how the Sydney (Australia) based firm, Marketing Minds summarizes Apple's brand personality:  '. . . about being a really humanistic company with a heartfelt connection with its customers. The Apple brand is not just intimate with its customers, it's loved, and there is a real sense of community among users of its main product lines.'  Ouch!  It doesn't take a genius to conclude whether that characterization of what Apple stands for was written before or after the iPhone 4 snafu, and it certainly doesn't jibe with Chapatte's cartoon.  Take away that heartfelt connection and intimacy with customers, as Jobs seemed to be doing with his reaction to the iPhone 4 antenna problem, and all of a sudden, Apple isn't so special anymore.  Innovative?  Sure, but so are many other tech companies who must now be learning, you would think, from Apple's IPhone 4 misstep.

So what should Apple have done in response to the iPhone complaints, and is it too late to make amends?  Once again, I refer back to Manjoo's July 15 Slate column, where he enumerated some courses of action (this before the Jobs press conference).  Manjoo correctly predicted that Apple could think small, assuming that people probably weren't going to return their phones en masse, and simply offer free 'bumpers' cases for the product that seem to reduce the antenna problem. (By the way, Apple sold 1.7 million phones the first weekend of the launch.):

  •   That would be the easy thing to do. Nothing major—no product recall, no apology, no admission of error. But I hope that the out-of-nowhere press conference signals a shift for Apple—a revolutionary decision to kill off the company's critics-are-always-wrong philosophy. I also hope that Apple will finally offer a credible explanation for what's wrong with the iPhone. And I hope Jobs says just one more thing: I'm sorry.

  • It's time that Apple admits what has become obvious to everyone: It made a mistake. There is more than enough evidence to suggest that there is a real design flaw in the iPhone.

Manjoo's latter recommendations are what engagement is all about - admitting a mistake, perhaps going to consumers for solutions in the spirit of  a collaborative relationship, and apologizing to the customers whose relationships Apple surely wants to nurture.  As Manjoo correctly observed, this hasn't been Apple's modus operandi, especially in times of crisis:  'when controversy erupts, it is rarely transparent with reporters, customers, federal regulators, or anyone else. Instead, Apple prefers to create its own reality.'

And though some may argue that the damage is done, I think Apple's customers are so appreciative of the firm's constant innovation and quality products that they would quickly forgive and forget.  Admit the mistake, ask for solutions, fix it, apologize, throw in some added value (the free case without the smirk, free applications, etc.), invite dissatisfied customers to return the product for an exchange or full refund.

In the meantime, Apple remains a large target for firms like Motorola (see above ad) and creative entrepreneurs, like Szymon Weglarski and Jonathan Dorfman, whose iPhone fix, the multi-colored adhesive strips known as Antenn-aids,  started as a joke and quickly evolved into a phenomenon: