Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz taught me a valuable lesson in communication skills—what you stand for is more important than what you make. Let me explain.
This month Starbucks celebrates its 40th anniversary. Starbucks opened its first Seattle store on March 30, 1971. Today the coffee chain has more than 17,000 locations around the world. I interviewed Schultz several years ago for a book about how inspiring leaders communicate their vision to customers and employees. When I look back at the transcript from that interview, I see that Schultz used the word “passion” more often than he said, “coffee.” But isn’t Starbucks a coffee company?
According to Schultz, “Starbucks is the quintessential experience brand and the experience comes to life by our people. The only competitive advantage we have is the relationship we have with our people and the relationship they have built with our customers.”
“I hear you talking about people, health insurance, customer service, and the experience in your stores, but I have yet to hear you say the word coffee. Aren’t you a coffee company?” I asked.
“We’re not in the coffee business. It’s what we sell as a product but we’re in the people business—hiring hundreds of employees a week, serving sixty million customers a week, it’s all human connection,” Schultz responded.
In that moment I realized that successful leaders and inspiring communicators do not talk about the product as much as they paint a picture of what the product stands for. Starbucks doesn’t sell coffee. It sells human connection. This makes a big difference in how Schultz articulates the vision behind the brand.
Howard Schultz is responsible for turning Starbucks into the experience we know today. After a trip to Italy in the 1980s, he returned to America dedicated to recreating the espresso bar culture. When Schultz pitched the idea to investors, he didn’t say, “We’re going to build a chain of coffee shops that serve great tasting coffee.” Remember, “coffee” isn’t what the business stands for. Instead he said, “We’re going to build a third place between work and home.” The latter is a far more interesting and compelling conversation.
The next time you pitch your idea or give a PowerPoint presentation about your company ask yourself, “What business am I really in? Remember, it’s not always the obvious.