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By Lon LaFlamme & David Morris, The Brand Coaches

Highly effective experiential retail capitalizes on all five senses, which is what customers see, hear, smell, touch and taste. The Brand Coaches take a look at one of the most successful chains to put this strategy into play.

The specialty coffee retail experience can and should be traced back to Starbucks’ powerful application of emotional branding. Starbucks effectively coined the concept of “the third place,” defined as a place for people to meet and socialize away from home and work.

We know! Not more blah, blah, blah about how we should all be on our knees thanking Starbucks for setting the rules for success. In working with coffee house independents and chains across America, we noticed too many specialty coffee house owners have not only turned a deaf ear, but also a blind eye on the critical fundamentals of success this international mega brand is refining each day.

The fact is that Starbucks provides the perfect starting, and or enhancing template for any coffee house. However, before you too start turning green, let’s linger for a few moments on the fundamental ingredients behind the “Starbucks Experience.” The timing has never been better than right now to jettison your business way beyond what Starbucks can deliver, allowing that you first fully capitalize on what they do so right.

Today’s seasoned specialty coffee customers demand a lot more that just a consistent quality cup of coffee. Having grown into a corporate-driven empire, Starbucks is becoming more vulnerable every day, as savvy coffee house owners are creating genuine customer relationship-driven businesses. At the same time, the investment that is required to meet, and then beat, “the Starbucks experience” has significantly increased within the past 10 years.

Before you tune out again at yet more “fluff” about Starbucks, ask yourself if you can honestly check off the following list of requirements before you even begin thinking about branding.

Success Formula Checklist

  • Theme Versus Function
    All interior design concepts need dramatic originality AND customer comfort, along with specialty coffeehouse familiarity. Making the interior decor too themed can lead to customers interpreting their visit as a one-time novel experience that has too little resemblance to home. Putting too little branding personality into the concept, however, could make it seem forgettable or “just another coffeehouse trying to look like my family room.”

  • Music
    Music is a critical ingredient in capitalizing on experiential branding. There are now a number of resources available for custom thematic music to bring your brand to life. Everybody talks about the importance of music, but only a handful of owners understand or fully embrace this huge emotional branding opportunity.

  • Seating/Tables
    All seating areas have to be designed for lingering comfort, as well as business and meeting functionality. While some should be high tables with stools, others should be low with comfortable chairs. It is best to strategically place a couple of table desks specifically designed for that laptop computer geek who wants to write his/her next novel at your place. Of course, supporting your “third place” guest worker bees, the entire coffee house should have wi-fi so customers can settle in and use their computers anywhere.

  • Lighting
    While thematic lighting will dramatically add to the drama of the customer’s experience, it must be bright enough in all areas for comfortable reading and work, except the soft mood lighting in the comfortable couch and chair conversation area.

  • Stone Fireplace
    A stone fireplace will significantly enhance the ambiance while encouraging customers to relax and engage in lingering conversations. If your current, new or next location can accommodate a fireplace, what better way to create the perfect conversation area?

  • Customer Service Counter
    The service counter should be kept low enough for baristas to comfortably interact with customers and allow the customer to easily see the theatrical drink preparation.

  • Certified Baristas
    All baristas must go through extensive beverage AND customer relationship marketing training. Re-certification should be required every six months to ensure quality control.

  • Barista Uniforms
    All baristas should have business-provided branded shirts and aprons, with name badges attached. Only the first name should be printed, and above that should read, “Certified Barista.”

  • Signature and Seasonal Menu Board Accompaniments
    The perfect coffeehouse menu board has a regular menu (i.e. lattes and mochas), signature drinks (averaging 4-6, with professional photographs) and professionally designed seasonal beverage posters.

    The signature drinks should be created with original names and popular ingredients for both the signature coffee drinks, as well as the blended drinks and smoothies.

  • Tabletop Merchandise
    All retail merchandise -- from brand commuter cups, shirts, hats, etc., as well as coffee brewing equipment -- must be displayed near the service counter and/or in areas that encourage touching and impulse purchase.

  • Wall Decorations
    With few artistic exceptions, all wall art should be either a branded extension of your brand, or be original enough to instantly make your walls identifiable as your place. Always consider whatever is on your walls to be an atmospheric expression of your brand.

  • Exterior Design Considerations
    The perfect site selection should take precedence over thematic exterior designs. While stand-alone restaurants and a limited number of inline commercial spaces will allow

    thematic exterior design accents, many of the most strategic downtown and suburban sites allow no exterior deviations and have restrictions allowing limited signage. Professional neon and/or backlit exterior signage that are as large as allowed by city code regulations is critical to create a customer’s “corporate confidence” in beverage and service quality consistency.

Have you come up short on one or more this these fundamental design formulas for a successful coffee house? If you said yes, don’t feel like the Lone Ranger. We work with one big chain that buries its tabletop merchandise behind the barista service counter, along with one-pound of whole beans. When The Brand Coaches pointed out what we considered to be an obvious customer impulse purchase disadvantage, the senior management shrugged and said they knew the items were in the wrong place, but the café’s design didn’t allow for the display case to be anywhere else. Well, enough said!

Tea & Coffee - October/November, 2006
Modern Process Equipment


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