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Ideas. Insights. Inspiration.

On Coffee and Brand-Building...

As part of their benefits, all Starbucks partners (employees) receive a "mark-out" every week: one free pound of coffee beans.* You can say it's one of the "perks" of the job. #DadJoke

There's a bit of fine print involved, though: your mark-out is a "use it or lose it" proposition, so if you don't collect your free bag in a given week, it's gone forever.

Because this free coffee is very clearly positioned as a part of a partner's compensation, most partners made it a point to collect their mark-out every week and then give it away to a friend or family member if they didn't need it for themselves.

When I worked at Starbucks many years ago, I'd drink so much coffee at work every weekday that my consumption at home only happened on the weekends, and I wouldn't go through a two-pound bag of coffee beans every single weekend. As a result, I'd often end up giving away my weekly mark-outs.

My mother would often be a recipient of my extra coffee supply. She'd always accept it, but she liked the fact that it was free more than she liked the coffee itself: she always believed Starbucks coffee was "too strong" (by which she actually meant "bitter").

Now here's where it gets interesting.

Starbucks partners are taught about the four fundamentals required to make a great cup of coffee. Perhaps the most important fundamental is "proportion": you need to get the proportion of coffee to water just right. The recommended proportion (which is printed on every bag of Starbucks coffee sold) is 10 grams of coffee for every 180 millilitres of water.

But my mother never bothered to measure the coffee, despite my ongoing reminders. She'd simply put an amount into her coffee machine that seemed right to her, and go from there. And when the coffee ended up being "too strong", the next time she made a pot, she would adjust by putting less coffee into the machine.

Except... that was actually the opposite of what she needed to do to solve the problem.

You see, my mother has always been quite frugal, so the amount of coffee that "looked right" to her was always a proportion less than 10 grams per 180mL of water. And when you have too little coffee being blasted with too much hot water, the coffee in the machine gets over-extracted. Do you know what over-extracted coffee tastes like? It tastes bitter.

My mother's "fix" to the problem was actually making things worse: she needed to add more coffee to her machine, not less. But she never did, and after many bitter pots, she just decided that Starbucks just wasn't right for her pallette.

Building a strong brand is like making a great cup of coffee.

You might not make it all the way to "great" on your first try... but that might be because you didn't invest enough. If that's true, your next step should be to invest more, not less.

Measurement matters. You don't just go by what "looks right" when there are people who've already figured out what it actually takes to get the job done the way you want it. Listen to the experts.

And if you don't invest enough and you don't use the proper measurements...

... don't be surprised when you're left with a bitter taste in your mouth.

* Partners can also choose one box of tea as their mark-out instead of one bag of coffee, and many partners who were not coffee drinkers would choose to do that. But a bag of coffee was worth twice as much as a box of tea in terms of retail cost, and since your mark-out was part of your compensation package, value-conscious partners who enjoyed both beverages would often choose the higher-value item.


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