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Another Lesson from Starbucks

February 18, 2009 by

Starbucks is often used as an example within the world of church marketing. They have an experience, they knew how to tell their story.

Yes, I said “knew how to tell their story.”

I’ve had numerous conversations with church leaders about Starbucks’ concept of a “third place” and how the church could harness that feeling. We have work, we have home … Starbucks was that third place, a getaway, a place to relax, etc. etc.

Then they installed a drive-thru. So much for a third place, it was just a stop on the way to either home or work. They’ve put another nail in the coffin now with instant coffee. Doesn’t get any less third place than that.


Starbucks no longer has a story to tell. Their story is now the same as McDonald’s and Folgers.

I’ve seen the same thing in the local church. They start off with a core calling, know who they are and what God has created them to do. Then they either get bored or see the church down the road try something new and they change their story.

Excellence as church marketers is all about being great storytellers. Know your story and stick with it. Don’t let things–even seemingly good things–distract you from your unique story. When you start to change your story, often you don’t end up with something new, you end up without a story to tell.

Let someone else sell instant coffee or add a drive thru. Put your efforts into creating a more excellent third place, whatever that unique component happens to be for your church.

Post By:

Michael Buckingham


With the goal of making the church the most creative place on the planet, Michael founded Holy Cow Creative, the church’s creativity and design studio. He is also the creative director for the Center for Church Communication and Church Marketing Sucks. You can find him speaking at conferences such as HOW, Echo, and MinistryCOM. Check out his blog, Jesus Hates Papyrus, where he continues to help the church intentionally reflect Christ in how it communications.
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15 Responses to “Another Lesson from Starbucks”

  • Michael
    February 18, 2009

    I’m not sure why we’re being so hard on starbucks for “abandoning their mission,” especially considering all the parallels we all make with church.
    We praise churches for getting rid of their mid-week services because they realize that it’s not working. We praise churches for breaking the mold of tradition for finding a better way. We encourage taking risks even if it means offending the regulars.
    Maybe this is a dumb move on behalf of Starbucks. Or maybe it’s knowing the culture and the economy and trying to adapt.


  • Lex
    February 18, 2009

    Ditching programs that don’t work should be done in the name of maintaining the church’s mission/calling/code. Starbucks isn’t making changes to get back to what they do best – they’re panicking. At least that’s what it seems like.
    Of course, only time will tell, but I’m betting on “bad idea.”


  • Kevin Davis
    February 18, 2009

    Very true. They have (or feel like they have) to sell out in order to stay profitable and cater to the consumers conveniences. The difference for the church should be that we depend on God when things are grim, not some new gimmick or way to cater to the conveniences and consumerist tendencies of church peeps.


  • Kent Shaffer
    February 18, 2009

    We need drive-thru instant church.


  • Ryan
    February 18, 2009

    The whole problem with implementing trends (In this case, the trend is a “third place”.) is that it is just that, a trend.
    Church’s need to strive to be above trends, which goes back to a core competency of a church, relationships. Relationships are not trends unless it is applied to a brand, but still a church is not a brand, though brands might help us communicate who we are. The local church is a body of believers that generally have the same preferences of those they worship with. So look for those non-christians who you see eye to eye with on a lot of issues and start there.


  • Hal
    February 18, 2009

    This may sound like heresy in our current culture of instant gratification, but I don’t want everything in an instant. Sometimes the patience involved in a particular process adds to the payoff (like when you were a little kid, waiting to open gifts on Christmas morning).
    When it comes to coffee, I like the time it takes me each morning to grind the beans, heat the water, and let the grounds steep in my French press. It reminds me that some of the best things in life can only be fully appreciated/enjoyed when you slow down. (Who’d have ever thought: a little cup of sabbath every morning).
    The application for the church is that we must realize that our ultimate goal is not “convenience.” Regardless of our denominational pulls, hopefully we can all agree that what every church ultimately strives for is creating and strengthening relationships; relationships between people and God, and relationships between people and each other (Matt. 22:37-40).
    The most meaningful relationships can be described many ways, but “convenient” is not one of them.


  • deWeb
    February 18, 2009

    great post.


  • Stephen James
    February 18, 2009

    I can probably count the number of times I’ve been in a Starbucks, so I don’t know the company well, but maybe it’s product differentiation: good, better, best.
    They can’t lower the price on the current offerings.


  • Tim Cote
    February 18, 2009

    While God never changes, and relationships are always important, the reality of the time always needs to be taken into account when presenting these concepts.
    The buzz in retail/food service for years has been “premiumization” That day is over. Now it is trade down. I am not sure Starbucks survives the trade down wars because the focused so heavily on premium, premium, premium and the brand may not be able to be repositioned as a value brand.
    Many churches have fallen into this same trap with more focus on upscale buildings, prosperity doctrines, a focus on international missions, a focus on paid staff versus a volunteer staff, etc. Those days are likely gone for many years. Churches that can not reposition either from lack of will or lack of foresight will likley fail just as sure as GM, Bank of America, Cicuit City or maybe even Starbuck’s.


  • matt
    February 18, 2009

    didn’t the Lord say, “Be always in a rush, and know that I am God”? i’m pretty sure He never tells us that it is those who wait on Him that He will meet and bless…


  • Eric Granata
    February 19, 2009

    Good post. Local churches should be careful not to sell-out and therefore risk sacrificing their mission for something that is not ordained by God.
    Regarding Starbucks: I worked for the company a while back when it was all about the Third Place and coffee house culture. I have been pretty critical and harsh on the company when it has decided to do things like drive-thrus, value meals, smoothies, instant coffee, etc. These are things that the company I worked for and loved seemed to scoff at and in some cases said they would never do.
    However, Starbucks’ main goal is to be profitable. Another goal is to provide good customer service and if Starbucks can help me out in today’s economy by offering an alternative to fresh brewed coffee at a cheaper price, then I consider it a good business and customer service move.
    Perhaps churches could take a cue and evaluate themselves and see where they could make a compromise for the betterment of their congregation. As long as it did not violate scripture, of course.


  • Sean
    February 19, 2009

    THere is really only one problem with church. The people.


  • Michael Buckingham
    February 20, 2009

    Great comments!
    @Michael I think we can learn from Starbucks. Lex is right on, I don’t think this is about knowing the market, it’s about knowing yourself. Starbucks was founded on the experience and instant coffee is about convenience.
    @Ryan Being a third place wasn’t just a trend, it was the core of their DNA. Trends shouldn’t be ignored, they should be explored but never at the expense of your core identity. Of course as Tim pointed out, maybe they should have thought about the effects of a downturn when they were designing their DNA to be all about a premium experience.
    Great conversation, I really like seeing all the different angles the topic takes.


  • Sigs
    February 25, 2009

    As a Starbucks employee, marketing major, and leader at my church, what Sbux is trying to do is be all things to all people. They want to provide the high end coffee to the rich consumer while providing instant coffee at a cheap price for the customer who needs caffeine to survive those rough mornings (we all do know that coffee is the Christian drug right? ha).
    This is also what the church tries to do. Rather than focus in on a couple of things and doing them ridiculously well, they try to have a program for EVERY type of problem. Your typical church has a ministry for every single age group, divorcees, financial stuff, fellowship, men’s group, women’s group, and the list goes on. All of these things are very good, but at some point the church needs to draw the line and hone in on a core competency.
    When you think of companies, they target a niche. Churches must find their niche and stick to it. That doesn’t mean you can’t adapt to a changing climate (like Starbucks is trying to do), but you must find out who your market is. The church I attend is very open about how they are trying to attract two types of people (who are actually quite different) in our city: the intellectuals who are frustrated with a fundamentalist view of God and the poor people that are surrounding our location. That’s basically it.
    So the mission of the church is: “Inner Metro Green is a missional Christian community of ordinary individuals devoted to Jesus Christ’s simple but revolutionary way. Our mission is to proclaim and participate in God’s community of transformation, justice, hope, peace, and love with friends and neighbors in our city.”
    The execution of that mission, however, is what must be extremely focused. For Starbucks, and for our local church.


  • KR
    April 5, 2009

    Here’s the problem. Where I grew up we had a local coffee shop…aptly named Sleepers. You walked into Sleepers and everyone knew you, what was happening and cared because in our tiny town we “did life together” without calling it that based on a marketing suggestion. Now in the Starbucks, “third place” world of mega-church…I get the overwhelming sense that a vast majority are posing. Just like the Starbucks lingering. Anyone I’ve ever met thinks the coffee is too strong, but they like to hang out there…like the idea of it…the brand they’ve been sold on. The image. Same with the church my husband and I attended, served with, married at and “did life with.” Well, life for us took a critical turn 4 months after our son was born and we couldn’t get a pastor to come pray with us. Couldn’t get a pastor to return a call. We didn’t matter…reaching more for Christ (numbers, numbers and numbers.) Funny, no one from my local starbucks called to check in either. Four of the calls we got…were people we hadn’t seen in 10 years…from Sleepers. I think Jesus would think it sucks…the state of His church…the slick marketing…the canned sermons planned out a year in advance…the lonely disciples being put on hold while pastors are meeting about capital campaigns. Sleepers is still successful, has survived the ups and downs of several decades…the secret isn’t the coffee, the decor, the marketing…the secret is caring about people. May God help to bring people to HIM in spite of all our church marketing…and may He restore the church to be what He intented.



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