Starbucks Now ‘Barbucks’ as it Shifts Brand Strategy Offering Booze

It’s hard to imagine the brand that revolutionized the coffee industry will be forty next year.   Starbucks has become a worldwide icon over the past four decades by mass marketing a premium “coffee experience.”

As all brands need to evolve to survive, marketers must be careful not to water down the experience.  Companies beholden to shareholders always are looking for brand extensions to improve the bottom line.  Starbucks expanded its product offerings throughout the years by selling breakfast food items and most recently introducing its VIA™ line of instant coffee.

Now the Seattle-based coffee roaster is experimenting with alcohol.  One Seattle location was totally revamped creating an entirely new brand experience for customers, especially after 4 p.m., when patrons can order varieties of beer, wine and specialty food items served on china plates.   

 Starbucks changed much of the brand’s standard look and feel to give this Capitol Hill test store more of a local flavor.  So much so that environmentally sustainable furnishings for the location were supplied by local companies.

Lots of food retailers have gotten into the premium coffee market.  McDonald’s for instance has done well in this category even beating out Starbucks in some test studies, although results are widely debated.  What’s interesting however is that Starbucks created this new caffeine culture actually helping drive sales of premium coffee among local and independent cafes.  

No doubt the brand experience will dramatically shift for customers if booze remains on the menu.  This new concept is a gamble nonetheless with high risk consequences, possibly inviting drunkenness and rowdiness, although a few shots of espresso can pump up anyone’s intensity level.

Will Starbucks become more of a bar rather than a coffee house?  Or even a restaurant?  Time will tell.  Either way, the brand experience will change if Starbucks remains “Starbucks” and serves alcohol, maybe spawning another negative connotation as “Barbucks.”  One suggestion however might be to follow the example of other retailers such as The Gap and Zale Corporation, among others, who have created separate experiences for multiple brands.  Otherwise, it’s bottoms-up at Starbucks.

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