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.