Short Answer: they haven’t needed it. Word of mouth drove the business.
And, most of the ads you’ve seen featuring Starbucks have been done by partners like Kraft and Pepsi promoting Starbucks ice cream, bottled Frappuccino, and whole beans, not ads for the stores.
CEO of Starbucks Howard Schultz always said, “Our stores are our billboard.”
I love the quote by Walt Disney that reads, “Do what you do so well that people can’t resist telling others about you.”
That’s what Starbucks was doing–something so well, you couldn’t help but bring a friend to your Starbucks if they were from a town that didn’t have one.
Different, Dark Roasted Coffee
Starbucks’ secret weapon was dark roasted coffee. A bolder taste. A “West Coast roast.” The kind of flavor that if you liked it, it made most other coffee taste weak.
Now everyone has a bold coffee on the menu. (Starbucks has also added mild coffee to their menu, but that’s a topic for another question).
A small was a short. A tall was a medium. A big was a grande. When I go to Dunkin’ Donuts, I ask for a “regular” and get coffee with one sugar and milk. That’s as sexy as it gets. Now I can order a double-tall no-foam latte?! What is this crazy language?
To some, placing an order at Starbucks is still intimidating. To others, it is a game. Whether you like it or not, we talk about it. Starbucks stands out. You felt proud, an insider, part of the family if you could order your drink properly. Like knowing the password and secret handshake in a club.
Compare that to “I’ll have a regular, please.”
Let Me Linger
Starbucks also started to expand when Barnes & Noble was growing. Both Starbucks and B&N had an attitude of come in and hang out. A very European approach.
Pre-Starbucks, restaurant chairs were designed to be uncomfortable. Restaurants in the U.S. didn’t want you to linger. Buy, enjoy your food/drink, but then please leave to make room for the next customer.
A bear-what? A professional coffee maker? That’s a real thing? Again, Starbucks didn’t invent espresso, the latte, or the barista, but it was the first time we had mass exposure to someone steaming milk, pulling shots, and making your drink to order.
You could get a cappuccino at your local Italian restaurant, but it was made in the back. Here it was on stage. Coffee theater!
An Affordable Luxury
To buy a latte at Starbucks said you were willing to pay more than a cup of deli, McDonald’s or 7-Eleven coffee. You were a discerning coffee drinker. In the early years, you could see customers position their cups so the green siren logo was proudly visible to others. (This still happens today, it’s just not as unique with 26,000 stores).
Part of the Neighborhood
Every Starbucks that opened in the ’90s had some sort of local charity and giving program. Not because of hopes of “good PR” but because that is the right way to do business. Serve the neighborhoods of the people that support your business.
So…dark coffee, a professionally hand-crafted latte (ordered in short, tall, and grande), I can hang out as long as I want, good neighbor, with a secret language?
That’s all the advertising you need!
AICEX Customer Experience Italian Association