The Danger of Mainstreaming: Why Starbuck's Reserve Brand is Too Little Too Late


No doubt you've seen them popping up in trendy areas like Echo Park and the main drag of Palm Springs. The baristas wear hipster-style hats (likely part of their required uniform) as if to say, "We're consistent in our aesthetic, but definitely not corporate." The logo itself has a loosely veiled message that's meant to tell us this place is special with a simple star over a line and a single 'R'.

All the while, it feels like a proverbial Hail Mary for a mainstream brand that has lost its luster.

Starbucks used to be THE place to meet clients, escape from the office and complain with coworkers, or just sit for hours with your laptop and people watch while pretending to work. October meant nothing without a Pumpkin Spice Latte, and Christmas time came early for Gingerbread Latte drinkers. Having the coveted rose gold tumbler was a symbol of just how dedicated and driven you were to your coffee. But in the last couple of years, we've seen a shift in branding in the coffee industry.



As is the case with any commodity, the value and desire is significantly impacted with the accessibility of a product. In branding terms, I like to call this The Danger of Mainstreaming. As you try to appeal to more and more customers, your main audience loses interest. They no longer feel that the product is special or 'THEIRS', brand loyalty diminishes, and eventually you start closing down stores

Good ol' S-to-the-B seems to be combating their mainstream blues with a 'return to an immersive coffee experience' via their Starbucks Reserve locations. From the macrame decor to the elaborate coffee contraptions, the look of the Echo Park Reserve has all the allure of a new, hot boutique coffee house. Even the website is a strategic turn for the brand, focusing more on the source of the beans and the stories of the people who grow them than which mythological animal they'll create a coffee for next (cough cough, unicorn frappuccino). Still, upon careful observation, we can't help but notice that the brand is still largely lacking in its offerings. All of the innovation is happening in the coffee process with little attention to any other area. 

Sure, the new Reserve is a strategic move for the decades old global brand, but is the effort too little too late? With local favorites like Phillz and Groundworks continuing to take up market share and offering healthier food options, house-made organic milk-alternatives, and customizable choices on the level of sweetness for drinks, we can't help but feel that the Green Coffee Giant (see what I did there) is falling short on the desires of its core customers who likely care less about how the coffee is brewed and more about how they will feel after drinking it. 

Now, we're not hating on Star-Bizzle, they are still killing it in the app game - the order ahead feature really comes in handy, especially for interns. With any luck, they'll take a step back and recognize that most of their customers are looking for a boutique feel with melts-in-your-mouth goodies and ingredients that are house-made so that even if we're having a cheat day, it still feels like we're being good to our bodies. We just hope they figure it out before their competitors do. 


You may be wondering how this applies to you if you're not a large company (yet). Many of you are actually thinking, "Hey, I'd be lucky to be as successful as Starbucks is." You're not wrong, Starbucks did a lot of things right in the beginning which afforded them the success they've had since starting the business in the 80s. What we can learn from this is how to navigate the waters and prep your brand for the long haul. Here's some helpful hints on how to avoid becoming mainstream and losing your uniqueness.

1. Set your brand identity ahead of time, and be uncompromising on it. This means establishing your Brand DNA, the heart of your company (mission, vision, core values, value prop, customer profile) up the right way before you start scaling.


2. Don't fall victim to trends, if it doesn't fit your brand, it's not worth the short term traction. You'll end up just blending with the crowd and confusing your ideal customers in the end.

3. Know your audience. This is part of your brand identity, but it also means continuing to get to know them, grow with them, ask yourself constantly what they really need and find ways to address needs they didn't even know they had with some solid market research and contextual inquiry.

4. Innovate and scale intentionally. Growth is what keeps you relevant, but find ways to do it that still make your customers to feel that the brand is personal and bespoke to them. 

Robyn Young