Manufacturing Authenticity (or “Starbucks vs. a Dead Babylonian King”)

20.03.2014

At first, I enjoyed giving myself fanciful names because there’s nothing quite like listening to someone yell, “flat white for Nebuchadnezzar,” in a crowded Starbucks.

But the fun fell out of it when the staff began to recognize me, and they’d just ask, “And who are you today?”

This was last April, when Starbucks decided to force/encourage their staff to request the names of customers when taking orders and then announce them when the drinks were ready. It was an attempt to manufacture authenticity — to artificially create the social bond that might naturally grow between a vendor and customer in a bygone era when local customers patronized local shops staffed by local employees where everybody was on a first name basis.

This familiarity and sense of community is a powerful force. It’s one of the key aspects of the past that causes old people to believe that it was a better time to be alive, having conveniently forgotten that the same past was also generally more racist, sexist and homophobic and that domestic violence used to be an Olympic sport.

But you can’t blame Starbucks for having a go at creating this type of atmosphere; after all, they know we’ll all spend more money with them if we forget they’re a corporate behemoth. (Albeit one that doesn’t seem to turn enough of a profit to pay tax in the U.K.)

As a person who viewed this move with naked cynicism and resented its obvious, awkward and clunky nature, you can imagine my surprise when I came to the realization that it had worked.

A few weeks after the new policy was in place, I had forgotten how forced and faked this initiative had felt initially. My local branch was suddenly staffed by people whose names I knew and who (to varying degrees) knew mine as well. Written versions of my name on the cup varied wildly from Ken, Trent, Kenneth and Clint, but there was definitely a connection there. Their names were Peach, Simon, Jura and Luke, and I was the tall, bearded, flat white drinker with the inconsistent, one-syllable name.

As time progressed, our connection grew, and I realized that now we had a relationship that felt authentic. I cared about them, and they cared about me more than we had before the name game started. Starbucks had successfully manufactured authenticity.

Unfortunately for Starbucks’ shareholders, a superior (and genuinely local) coffee shop opened up just down the road, so one morning I sacrificed my sense of community to try the new place. These new kids on the block didn’t give two hoots about my name. In fact, they were almost indifferent to my patronage at all, but damn could they make a good coffee. There was no sense of community, but the warm fuzzy feeling of an excellent flat white trumped the warm fuzzy feeling of a mediocre flat white made by someone who thinks my name is Trent — and so I defected to the new shop.

In the aftermath of the Christmas/New Year break, I returned to work and was shocked to find my new coffee dealer was still closed for the holidays, so I sheepishly returned to Starbucks. I foolishly set my expectations high and fully anticipated to be welcomed back to the store by teary staff overjoyed at my return.

Unfortunately, times had changed at the big green mermaid, and names didn’t seem to carry the currency they once did. Not only did no one recognize me (let alone my name), but no one’s names were being requested or announced. The staff was the same — some of them even sporting the old name badges — but gone was the familiarity, the camaraderie and the community. What remained was authentic, but it was authentic to a corporate giant whose focus had moved on to something else, leaving staff and customers rolled back to their default state: half-arsed greetings from the staff and surly orders from the customers.

I haven’t been back since, and this was only one store, so I wouldn’t consider this a rigorous, scientific appraisal of Starbucks’ customer service policy. However, it did teach me a couple of things:

  • You can manufacture authenticity, and it can work, but it takes effort, focus and consistency.
  • Occasionally you’ll lose out to a superior product, even if you create a better experience.
  • If you’re going to fake it, you have to be willing to keep up the facade if you want to continue to reap the benefits.
My regular coffee shop is back open now, but they seem to have come back from the holidays even more caustic and unwelcoming than they were when they left. They could certainly teach Starbucks about making an absolutely banging flat white, but they could learn a thing or two from Starbucks as well, namely:
  1. Focusing on your customers is never a waste of time, but you have to keep at it, and
  2. Anyone who calls themself Nebuchadnezzar is nothing but trouble.

This piece originally appeared in The Agency Post


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