Branding Beat - Cut Through the Noise

Building a Community: Why Starbucks Gets Customer Service Right

How often do major businesses take the time to really listen to their customers? I mean—really listen. I’m not talking about a customer service rep having to deal with a disgruntled patron or two. That’s fairly common. I’m talking about having the initiative to reach out and actually heed the advice of the individuals directly responsible for the longevity of your brand—the customers. Well, guess what. Unbeknownst to many, Starbucks has been doing exactly that for about three years now!

Starbucks customers love to participate!

Back in early 2008, the brand that makes every twenty-something feel hipper just by setting foot inside the door launched its own microsite, My Starbucks Idea. The site had a simple agenda: to take suggestions and to generate discussion as to how the company should go about improving itself. Originally envisioned as a kind of customer outreach project, the site’s launch was regarded as little more than a thinly veiled PR effort—which is understandable, seeing as how such moves are relatively commonplace in big business. What naysayers probably didn’t count on, however, was the overwhelming sense of community that Starbucks loyalists brought to the site. Fast-forward to 2011: the site is still active, and offers categorized sections to which visitors can either submit their own suggestions or comment on the suggestions of others.

According to one article, “almost 98,000 ideas have been submitted [to the site], and 100 have been adopted. Among them: donating unsold pastries to local homeless shelters and food kitchens, giving baristas name badges, selling reusable sleeves, and bringing back Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate.” Now that’s what I call customer service!

Starbucks loyalists out there (the ones who either contribute to the suggestion site or have contributed in the past) actually deserve a great deal of credit. Without their ongoing participation and loyalty to the brand, there wouldn’t have been thousands of thoughtful and viable suggestions submitted in the first place. In all sincerity, it’s a job well done, and in the interest of giving credit where credit is due, I tip my hat to the many participants at…

…who will likely return to their usual tables, hide their expressions of self-satisfaction behind a Chuck Palahniuk novel, and wait for a friend to arrive and engage them in idle chitchat about how the Right-wing corporate agenda is furthering our country’s class divide. Just kidding!

To Starbucks, I have one thing to say: you got it right! It goes without saying that companies of all shapes and sizes should feel encouraged to bring similar efforts to the table. Keep up the good work. And please stop using those ridiculous Italian terms for drink sizes; it’s confusing and pretentious and doesn’t help your image.

Again, for those interested, My Starbucks Idea is still active and visitors are welcome to offer input. In fact, I’d recommend that anyone interested in marketing give it a quick look, if only to see exactly what effective customer engagement in the 21st century looks like.

Starbucks knows that customers want to be involved, and they’ve come up with an excellent way to obtain feedback and suggestions. How else can they engage their patrons? Can you think of any other customer service techniques that would benefit businesses, whether large or small?

*Image credits: here and here.


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  1. JPorretto

    Customer involvement, WHEN DONE CORRECTLY, is invaluable. Starbucks has nailed it here. They put themselves in the position to pick and choose the best suggestions, but without being forced to adopt unpopular ones (**Cough** Madden 12 – Peyton Hillis on the cover **Cough**).

    Did you see they have a “short” size now?! Tall is no longer the smallest! Hallelujah! It’s like they read our blog!

    • Joseph Giorgi

      Wow, you’re really upset about that new Madden cover! It’ll be okay, Jeff. I’m sure that the game will be fantastic nonetheless.

      But yes, Starbucks is obviously very attentive to the concerns of its customers, which is something that the big business community needs a lot more of.

  2. Mandy Kilinskis

    I’m glad to hear that My Starbucks Idea is the reason that Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate came back into everyone’s lives. Truly, I’d never want to live in a world without it.

    After working behind the scenes at a Starbucks, I must say that they really do pay attention to customer complaints and suggestions. Every week or two they compile a list of actual customer comments and thousands of baristas across the country read them. Then they (ideally) ‘reflect’ on these comments and see how they might need to change something to help the customers have a better experience. While that might not be possible for all companies, it’s definitely something to consider.

    • Joseph Giorgi

      It sounds like they really do go the extra mile to retain customer loyalty. I was more surprised than anything to hear about My Starbucks Idea, but now I’m just impressed.

      It’s nice to know the even the biggest players in modern business have time to listen to their customers’ concerns.

    • ASneed

      The Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate sounds delicious, but I still can’t bring myself to spend $3-$5 on a coffee. I am satisfied with my Folgers and International Delight! 😉

  3. Jana Quinn

    Interesting take on the My Starbucks Idea. I wonder how public relations professionals and community outreach consultants feel about their individual jobs being taken over by the community at large.

    After all, Starbucks is soliciting unpaid labor from its customers. Contribution is voluntary, but many people would jump at the chance to be considered even peripherally famous when their idea is selected and implemented.

    That is, of course, the most dramatically negative way to look at the idea.

    The positive aspect is that Starbucks is getting real-time feedback in its public relations while customers have a direct line of communication to what could easily be a faceless corporation. Plus, it looks like the actual ideas being implemented are maximizing social gain and minimizing environmental damage; I would hazard to say both of those things are considered universally good.

    Maybe Starbucks could implement a barista-for-a-day program. Winners can make ridiculously specific drinks, deal with angry customers, and get paid enough in one day to buy an entire scone!

    I’m not a coffee person, so Starbucks makes me crabby.

    • Joseph Giorgi

      “Barista-for-a-day.” Love it!

      And I agree, the fact that Starbucks is opening itself up to customer feedback goes a long way in reshaping its public image as more cooperative, receptive, and well-meaning. This is exactly what the brand needs.

    • Mandy Kilinskis

      Ah! But that’s why they changed their company name/logo/everything to just say Starbucks! They no longer want the non-coffee drinkers to feel excluded.

  4. cyberneticSAM

    Ahh Starbucks, the coffee house you love to hate. Starbucks and I have a twisted relationship. I am very impartial to their beverages; however, since they have worked really hard at being basically the only coffee place in most areas (by killing small coffee shops) going to Starbucks is basically unavoidable. Now I can’t say that it is the root of all evil, because it too was a small Seattle coffee shop at one point. But it is neat to see a large business really reaching out to the public to improve its service. There should be a standard for businesses like this. If your business is franchised at all, then I feel it should be the responsibility of the corporation to tune into the large public they have settled. I also feel that, depending on how large the business, that they should feed back into the community that they have become a part of. When you rid a town of its character by eliminating the smaller businesses, the least you can do is help out the community by being involved with the community and maintaining some individuality, community-building, and appreciation. That would give it some identity, thereby associating it with the settlement it has occupied.

    • cyberneticSAM

      By the way, out of 98,000 ideas only 100 have been implemented? Well, I guess some is better then none…right? :/

      • JPorretto

        I’m sure that approximately 85,452 ideas are either jibberish, or “Lower your prices”. I’m actually quite impressed with 100 implemented…

    • Joseph Giorgi

      Starbucks may be taking over small-town America, but at least they’re doing it in the most considerate way possible: by reaching out and taking note of the public’s concern. Most corporations (*cough Wal-Mart cough*) refuse to even make such a gesture.

  5. Wim @ Sales Sells

    Good example of how big multinational corporations can still be perceived as accessible if they open themselves up. Instead of placing a suggestion box in each store, they collect suggestions in one central place online, creating a community around it. Great move if you ask me!


    • Joseph Giorgi

      Agreed. Starbucks may not be the most well-regarded corporation in the world, but they’re headed in the right direction. They know that the suggestion box is rapidly becoming a thing of the past, as consumers want to be able to engage with their favorite brands the same way they’d engage with their friends: with the understanding that they’re being listened to.

  6. ASneed

    I think that this is really cool of Starbucks to do. They are really making an effort to hear what their customers are saying….which is awesome, because as we all know, Starbucks is massive!

    This post was very well written Joe–nice work! =)

    Sam–I see what you’re saying about only 100 being implemented, but I bet a lot of them were very similar suggestions and ideas.

    • Joseph Giorgi

      Thanks Amanda! 🙂

      I’ve looked at some of the suggestions on the site. Yeah, many are redundant, and others just aren’t cost-effective. I’m sure that the 100 or so that have been put into action were the best of the bunch.

  7. Katie

    What a great way to make sure your brand is keeping in touch with the customer. It also makes customer happy to see their ideas taken seriously. Very cool!

  8. Amy

    Random fact: The ‘spill stick’ concept (that green stick that seems like a waste of plastic, until you stumble while walking and discover no coffee splashed on your shirt) was thought up by a customer on their idea website.

    • Jill Tooley

      I want to kiss the person who came up with those! 🙂

      • Amy

        That makes 2 of us! They’ve saved me several times, fortunately 😉

    • Joseph Giorgi

      Seriously? That’s one innovative customer! 🙂

  9. Jill Tooley

    I’ve gone from an anti-Starbucks opinion to a completely-indifferent-on-Starbucks opinion over the past few years (as in, I’d buy their coffee if I was desperate and that was the only option, but I’d NEVER go out of my way to seek them out for coffee), but this customer feedback initiative helps their case.

    It’s refreshing to hear that such a big chain still cares about what their customers want! Do you know if they credit any of the suggesters on their site or anything like that? Crayola did that with the name-this-new-color contests they had back in the day; the crayons would have “named by Sarah F. from Chicago, Illinois” printed on them in order to credit the winners.

    Great post, Joe!

    • Joseph Giorgi

      I hadn’t looked into whether or not Starbucks actually gave credit to the originators of the ideas. Maybe they acknowledged them on the site or rewarded them in some way; I’m not entirely sure.

      Oh wow, I totally remember that Crayola promotion from “back in the day.” That’s some nostalgia right there! 😉

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