Starbucks and the power of positioning as a modern business tool


Positioning is the art and the science of fitting your product, service or organisation to a particular segment of the broader market. It’s about giving your customers a meaningful choice, making their choice the obvious choice and in doing so, creating clear water between you and your competition, barring entry to your segment and ultimately reaping business advantages.


Adrian Kimpton of Sable&Hawkes writes:

Some simple examples. What car manufacturer would you recommend to a friend who has three young children and is most concerned about their ‘safety’? What brand of battery entered the public consciousness, became synonymous with ‘energy’ and introduced bunnies into common parlance? I would imagine you answered Volvo and Energiser. Each have looked at their markets, looked at a particular benefit to position themselves behind and then been creative and consistent in their application and positioning.

Coffee break
For me, a typical example of a strong business idea supported by a powerful brand position – one with emotional resonance and intellectual equity – is Starbucks.

Originally started as a single coffee store in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, selling coffee to the market traders and their customers, Starbucks changed in 1981, when Howard Schultz (soon to be owner, chairman, president and chief executive officer) first walked in and bought a cup of frothing Sumatra. A few corporate moves and shakes later, in 1987, Howard bought Starbucks with the help of some local Seattle investors. From there, the rest is history.

From that second ‘beginning’, Starbucks set out to be a different kind of company, one that not only celebrated coffee and its rich tradition, but also brought a feeling of connection. Schultz had a vision, to bring the Italian coffeehouse tradition to the United States. A place for conversation and a sense of community. A third place between work and home. Its mission was ‘to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup, and one neighbourhood at a time’.

And in just over three decades, Starbucks’ offering of distinctive blends of quality coffee, neighbourly camaraderie and a unique coffeehouse culture has helped it to become the most famous specialty coffee shop chain in the world.

The genius of the company’s success lies in its ability to personalise its customers’ experiences and, by doing so, secure their loyalty.
 How Schultz franchised a completely new market segment in ‘premium coffee’ and forever upgraded the coffee shop experience is a perfect example of the strategic power of positioning and business leadership, ultimately creating one of the world’s most powerful brands.


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Sable&Hawkes are a graphic design company based in Cambridge. We deliver brand positioning, visual identity solutions, creative direction and corporate and promotional design in print and online.