On my recent visit to my brother in law’s home I discovered a live case study of how a brand can create an ordinary consumer into a brand fanatic. He had moved into a big spacious home and the family was keen to show me around. When I was being taken on a guided tour of the house, the conversations revolved around the construction material, equipment, lighting, flooring, faucets, hobs and hoods. This house had all the common accouterments of a decent metro house and I was not so keen on seeing them. The commonality is a great leveler. It is a big robber of identity and uniqueness. The windmills of marketing machine run on this unending cycle of unique-common-unique. In the commonness of things one thing that struck me was two Starbucks mugs on the top shelf of an expensive hand carved rose wood show case. These shared space with expensive crystal figures and bottles of single malts.
The curious learner of consumer behavior in me who was resting peacefully on this Sunday was suddenly kicked awake. The ambiguity that sat on the top of the shelf needed to be resolved. Why mugs made of common inexpensive porcelain sat on the highest level? Is there anything in common between single malts and coffee? Coffee is enjoyed hot, single malt is best on the rocks. Coffee is common but single malt is uncommon. And it would be stupid to compare Macallan with Starbucks. My curious CB mind did not want to be left there. It wanted to delve deeper into the apparent incongruous reality. What was the method in this apparent madness? And upon being asking as to how much these mugs cost, he replied, Rs 750 each. It was quite a shocker to me.
And I could not resist pointing at the inaptness of Starbucks mugs that sat majestically on the shelf. To that my brother in law narrated an incident with his eyes gleaming and his smile nothing short of pure ecstatic joy. It appeared as if he had met God who blessed him with mugs to savor the drink of heaven. He narrated an incident of his visit to Austria. He told me that one very cold morning he was on his way to airport to take a flight. Half way to the airport he was alerted by the airline that the flight was late. He had checked out of the hotel and did not want to go back. Upon seeing a Starbucks sign board in one of the shops, he along with his friend thought of spending some time at Starbucks sipping hot coffee to kill time and ward off freezing cold. But as they moved near the outlet, it was unclear whether the shop was open for it was too early in the morning. Nevertheless they tried their luck and pulled the door. It was quite disappointing to them to see the coffee bar deserted except for a lady who appeared to be readying things. It did not take much time for them to realize that the shop was not yet ready for customers. But in curiosity my brother in law asked the lady if they could have coffee knowing fully well that it was an unfair and unreasonable demand and no way could they be entertained.
In response to their request the lady politely replied that the coffee bar started its business at six and serving customers before time was not possible. No business could be transacted before the bar officially opened as per rules. Reading the disappointment on their faces the lady explained she could still do something. She explained her predicament that she could not break rules but would also not like to let customers to go unhappy. Then all of a sudden she agreed to prepare two cups of coffee for them. This pleasantly surprised them and they did not want her to go out of her way to serve them. But then she insisted on the guests to have their coffee. Before leaving the bar, the duo wanted to pay for their cherished Starbucks brew but she refused to take any money. Upon insistence as to why she would not charge, she explained that as an employee she was entitled to some cups of coffee in a day free of cost which could be had any time of the day and she offered them two out of her share.
Now I understand that these simple mugs were much more than simple coffee containers. They were reminders of the Starbucks experience which was etched in my BIL’s mind. It is not much difficult for a rival company to procure better mugs, brew a better coffee, create better environment but still they may not be able to deliver exceptional experience. It is difficult to capture how both animate and inanimate blended together to create a memorable experience. A brief encounter of my BIL with Starbucks has converted him into a brand fanatic who talks and talks frequently about how somebody touched his heart. A look at those Starbucks mugs with eyes other than his misses the entire reality. This differentiation here is impossible to imitate. Great brands are differentiated in hearts; they create unique highly personal memorable experiences.
This episode revealed to me how a person can get so possessed by a brand and he does things which appear incongruous but are actually not.
In a book titled ‘The Starbucks Experience’ given to spelling out guiding principles, principle 3 goes as ‘surprise and delight’ and the chapter begins with a quote of Rabindranath Tagore:
“I slept and dreamt that life was joy.
I awoke and saw that life was service.
I acted and behold, service was joy.”