Remember the old days when coffee was a commodity? We may be headed there again.
Starbucks, with its expansion in 1987, revolutionized how we drink and think about coffee. It convinced us to buy whole beans instead of grounds. It familiarized us with espresso, cappuccino and latte. It introduced us to an American version of the European café experience.
Following Starbucks’ success, imitators, such as Caribou, The Coffee Beanery, and others, proliferated. McDonald’s, feeling the heat, changed its bean, ran a “Four bucks is dumb” campaign, and added its McCafé lineup. Tim Hortons and Dunkin’ Donuts followed suit. Now, Speedway is on the attack with less expensive, make-it-your-way coffee beverages.
Although these are very diverse retail models targeting different audience segments, they are clearly all responding to and offsetting the influence of the Starbucks’ brand experience.
It happens in every category.
No matter how hard a successful brand works to be different, it’s competitors are working just as hard to cash in by replicating it. Commoditization is a never-ending reality. It makes products and services indistinguishable and interchangeable. It levels the playing field after a brand has built a lead.
And yet there are some iconic brands that, despite competitive copycatting, manage to sustain their long-term “ownership” of a differentiator in the minds of consumers. Brands such as ESPN, Mountain Dew, Google, Volkswagen, Quaker Oats, Nike, Harley-Davidson, and Apple. How do they do it?
As discussed in a recent post, tangible advantages can quickly and easily be duplicated. Beyond the tangibles, strong brands have succeeded at bonding with their customers around an intangible attribute.
Starbucks’ defense against commoditization may not be the quality of it’s coffee, but rather the warm, comfortable, friendly intimacy it has created around the coffee-drinking experience. Is this an advantage they can sustain?