The brand is dead! Long live the brand!

Here’s a picture by Thomas Hawk
of the same promotion in San Francisco
(check out the comments.)

Last week, I was walking to the office down Park Avenue and a shiny tan car pulled up at a stoplight on 27th street with a red Starbucks cup on the roof. Now, given that I follow the trades, I know what’s going to happen next — an elderly gentleman in a cashmere coat waves at the driver and points at the cup on the roof (I’m too far away to hear the words), but the driver of the car flashes him a big facile smile and offers the man a coupon through the open driver’s-side window. The man seems to falter, a little deflated, but smiles politely and accepts the coupon. A homeless guy sees the coupon change hands and runs up to claim another one just as the Starbucks driver pulls away.

By this time, I’ve caught up to the gentleman on the corner. He looks nonplused, folds the coupon in half, and drops it into the trash, where it’s quickly retrieved by the homeless guy. Net result: one affluent target customer slightly annoyed, five dollars’ worth of Starbucks product given to a (probably) non-customer.

Now, not every viral campaign scores 100% of the time, but this one seemed particularly disconnected. The Starbucks driver (and, by extension, Starbucks’ agency and Starbucks themselves) will chalk this particular “brand touch” up as a win: the affluent man in the cashmere coat made contact, smiled, accepted a coupon. But what they don’t see is the annoyance left behind. This is not life-and-death angst, here — but slight embarassment is plenty enough to steer that customer to Seattle’s Best Coffee across the street for a while. “Har har har I fooled you” seems like it would work great to sell stuff to Jolyon Wagg, but I’m not really sure if tricking people tends to put people in a buying mood.

This is particularly true in New York City, where folks only break the Sacred Code of NYC Sidewalk Privacy for three things:

  1. “Hey, you dropped your [thing]!”
  2. “Hey, you left [thing] on top of your car!”
  3. “Hey, that guy is picking your pocket!”

Having a New Yorker stick their neck out and break the Zone of Silence — especially in a city where the pedestrian is the natural enemy of the car driver — having that person reach across enemy lines to help a fellow person, then be told that their help wasn’t needed, that they’ve been tricked… well, it doesn’t make a happy New Yorker. Come to think of it, though, I’m sure item number three is already being tested by a guerilla-marketing shop: “Picking my pocket, is he? Well, that’s what stereo retailers are doing to you every day, friend! Here, have a coupon for OH GOD OFFICER STOP SHOOTING HIM”

Starbucks seems to be teetering on its brand axis, lately, both in big ways and little. Kate and I have both devoted embarassing amounts of time to the annoyances of our local store, which seems to have been taken over by a slavering pack of mattress salespeople. I went in over the weekend and they were having a fer-chrissakes tent sale in the store, complete with a canopy tent, balloons, and prices SLASHED SLASHED SLASHED on espresso makers. Both Kate and I used Starbucks’ feedback page to complain about the upsell (see what I meant about “embarassing”?) but neither of us have heard back after three months. Which is a conspicuous silence.

It’s funny, I guess, those moments when you realize that a mighty brand empire has fallen. Take, for example, the winter of (I guess) 1999, when Prada came out with a luxury catalog with lots of ridiculous survival gear, including a bundle of firewood tied with a leather strap with a Prada logo on it; the bundle and strap was offered for fifteen hundred bucks. No, this isn’t what you think, this was the awesome part. The chutzpah of branding and selling a bundle of sticks for one-and-a-half long was fantastic; Evelyn Waugh was spinning in his grave, and Prada totally got away with it. Six months later, the Prada store opens in Soho, and they’re selling stainless steel checkers sets for a fifth of the cost. Forget ass-kicking Louis Quattorze excess, this shit was a half-step up from Brookstone, and you could see the Prada brand singeing and curling up right there in the store. Same with the Starbucks tent sale, and the continuing aggressive upsell at the counter: “would you like to try our NO I WOULD NOT”

To a great extent, the brands that compete so hard for our attention are dynastic, and it’s eerie to have a watershed moment when you realize that a ten-thousand-employee entity is sailing merrily in the wrong direction. (Or driving away in the wrong direction while the coupon gets folded up and dropped in the trash.)

Did this happen in feudal times, when the peasants one day look around, realize that the palace guards are all fat, and they’d better pack up the chickens and head across the river before the mongols show up?

One response to “The brand is dead! Long live the brand!”

  1. I am left to wondering why Starbucks in NYC and West Chester is so unctuous and ass-kissy while Starbucks Albuquerque (San Pedro and Paseo del Norte, I think) is an ultra-low-key drive-in kiosk. We went there the other morning, temp. in the teens, sun just emerging from the eastern mountains, to find this little boxy place ringed by SUVs and upscale pick-ups with drivers on cell phones, natch. Inside the box were maybe five dudes and dudettes, all with head sets on and moving in a slow coffee-making dance. Drive-ups make me nervous (I don’t like conversing with speaker boxes), so I parked and walked to the window. It was like ordering a cheesesteak in South Philly: a window slid open, someone said whaddyawant and I got my coffee. It was great.


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