As I was drinking my Starbucks coffee, I noticed writing on the side of my cup titled "The Way I See It #286." The quote, authored by comedian-magician Penn Jillette, reads "Hypocrisy is annoying but not evil. Someone who says one thing and does another has doubled their chances of being half right." At the bottom of the cup there is a disclaimer notice that reads: "This is the author's opinion, not necessarily that of Starbucks." Is it?
I can certainly believe that Starbucks was trying to appeal to a certain type of customer who enjoys thinking about different sides of issues and engaging in debate. However, I also believe that all messages a company sends out reflect their opinion on some level. After all, there are thousands – if not millions - of controversial quotes out in the world. Why did Starbucks' management choose to use this one?
When a company is going through tough times, it's essential to communicate in a way that is credible (e.g., words and actions match what others can easily perceive). In the case of Starbucks, the promise of convenience, the ability to try unusual blends of coffee, and knowledgeable staff who engage in conversations with customers have been as much a part of their communication as the writing on their coffee cups and ambiance of their stores.
Unfortunately, the promise now has a "half right" characteristic to it. Starbucks has seriously cut back on the number of shops it operates, making the existing stores more crowded. I"ve noticed that the knowledgeable, service oriented baristas are increasingly being replaced by more traditional clerks who don't have information or time to care about me as a regular customer. Bolder blends are no longer available at the times I want them – at least not without my asking and hoping that the barista on duty will accomodate me. Why do I keep going back? Complacency. But that could easily change if a viable competitor arrives in town.
Does Starbucks' management realize that some customers could be taking unintended messages from the writing on their cups? I'm sure they don't. And I am not bashing Starbucks. The company is facing legitimately tough challenges as the economy goes through hard times. Still, they would do well to heed the writing on their cups and adjust the message so that it better reflects what they want to communicate under current circumstances.
Think about the writing on your own cup. What unintended messages might your mug communicate about you, about your company, and about life in general? Remember: disclaimers alone are not enough to negate what others may already notice.