Starbucks is an obvious example of successful branding. It's easily identifiable at their drive-thrus, in shops with comfy chairs, on their take-out cups and recently their packets of instant brew. But since branding is about perception and experience even more than it is about looks, I interviewed a former Starbucks employee to find out how the brand works from inside the shop.

ER (Eleanor Rosenberg): How long did you work at Starbucks for?
AFSE/B (anonymous former Starbucks employee/barrista): Just short of a year.

ER: "Short" is a coffee term, right?
AFSE/B: Yeah, it's a size, from biggest to smallest it goes venti, grande, tall and short.

ER: Right, so if you could describe the Starbucks brand in three words, what would they be?
AFSE/B: hmmm, consistent, pseudo-exotic and warm.

ER: Why pseudo-exotic?
AFSE/B: By the time I finished working there I was tired of the jargon. Part of our role as barristas is to correct the customer if they use the wrong term. Like, if they asked for a “double” espresso we had to say “doppio” espresso—as if that made it more clear. There's also this contrived globalism that is portrayed through new coffees from different countries each month or so. They create a sense of mysticism that way.

I think most people appreciate that Starbucks coffee is consistent. As a barrista I saw it as a personal challenge to get it right each time, especially when it came to customers I like—which is probably exactly how they would want me to respond, but there was a certain craft to making an exacting drink exactly right. Sometimes they were spending more on a coffee than a meal at McDonald's might cost, so making it worthwhile was satisfying.

Warm is part of the Starbucks brand at every level, from the hot drinks to the caramel coloured packaging; from the soft dim lighting and comfy chairs that feel like a living room. In training we were told to remember customers names and their favourite drinks too.

ER: That really is warm on a number of levels. So, what's it take to become a barrista then? What happens when you're hired?
AFSE/B: You have to watch some videos and take an afternoon course. At the course you try all sorts of coffees, like Maxwell House, and learn why Starbucks is a better product. It's really obvious when you compare the coffees—but it’s not like they're comparing their stuff with artisan roasted coffee. It’s Starbucks versus freeze-dried stuff. We learned about the roasting process, choosing the beans and even the type of bag they use to preserve freshness. They talk about their partnerships with coffee farms in South America and Africa and a little bit of company history. They say their success is based on good customer service and a good product.

ER: Tell me about good customer service.
AFSE/B: All the training tries to make the employees believe in the product. That means they can back it up with their own words. Employees are also treated well. How many part-time jobs give you stock options? We also got a pound of coffee a month.

ER: Neat. Thanks for your time.

Hearing all that, I think it's safe to say that having employees know their company's brand—even beyond their immediate job—can be of great value, making them dedicated ambassadors for the values of the company.


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