I’m both fascinated and repulsed by corporate culture. I understand the damage that large corporations like Starbucks and Wal*Mart do to the economy and to any local urban fabric, but it’s amazing to me how companies can brand commodity products and experiences, and compel people to buy things that they probably otherwise wouldn’t. So, while I’ve never set foot inside of a Wal*Mart, I do go to Starbuck’s rather regularly, well until recently.
See, this is what becomes interesting, the reason a company can compel people to buy things is because they spend a lot of money branding the product and the environment in which it’s purchased, and in so doing tell a story—a fictitious story—that makes us, as consumers, want to buy something.
Many years ago, I worked at the Gap, and the company spent a huge amount of time training about the features and benefits of their jeans. This was shortly after the Gap (which made a fortune as the largest Levi’s outlet in the world) stopped selling Levi’s. Essentially, they had created a brand with greater equity than Levi’s, and the folks running the Gap (Mickey Drexler, at the time) made a shrewd decision to leverage the equity of the Gap brand name. So I went to endless training sessions to learn all the reasons Gap jeans were better than Levi’s, or Lee, or all the other brands that were out there.
So, long story short, one day, I was stocking jeans on the “floor” as it was called, and I noticed something very peculiar. The jeans looked like normal Gap jeans, they had a Gap label in them, but all the hardware—the little rivets and buttons, which usually was stamped with G A P—belonged to Perry Ellis, a fashion brand that by that time had slipped down the ranks past Lee and Wrangler, right to the bottom of the discount store heap.
Being the industrious young “pacesetter” I was, I bought a pair of the “mistruck” jeans ($29.50, minus my whopping 30% discount) and later that day wandered over to TJMaxx and bought a pair of bottom of the barrel Perry Ellis jeans for $8.99, no discount. In my bedroom, I unpackaged both, and was shocked to lear that the jeans were EXACTLY the same. My world was crushed. All the Gapropaganda that I had come to believe was now called in to question. We were essentially selling $9.00 jeans! It was unethical, but it was also the power of branding. People paid three times the price not because the jeans were any better, but because they believed they were better.
So, fast forward 20 years, I buy Starbucks coffee, not because it’s better, but because I believe it’s better. I’m a sucker for the brand, and I’m willing to pay because for the past 10 years, Starbucks’ service has been impeccable. However, once the economy started to tank, so did Starbucks’ service. I went in today to buy a decaf iced coffee, and was instead greeted by some song and dance about how they don’t brew decaf coffee anymore. I mean, really? Is it so hard to keep a pot of decaf brewing? Does that mean that because I don’t like caffeine, that I don’t like coffee? So, hey, Starbucks, if you’re listening, bring it on! We all know your coffee isn’t any better than the cut rate stuff I can buy at Aldi, so step up the service, and start giving your customers what they want…espresso, not excuses, and make that a decaf please.