We pick up a pebble, study it, launch it into a nearby pool of water, watch for a splash, and smile. We pick up a larger stone, weigh it up in the palm of our hand, fling it as far as an outstretched arm can reach, grin as the splash startles a nearby bird. We pick up a weightier rock, legs set firm, no let’s talk a run, launch that demonstrator of our cunning and strength and see if we can hit a target, yesss!  We look around for a boulder, heavier than us, roll it, roll it, to the cliff’s edge, and see it take on a spin of its own… It does, and what it takes in its path is a whole consequence of destruction as it tears down the hillside, bouncing off the rock face, loosening ground and wild tufts of growth, bringing it all tumbling down with a resounding crack, as it stamps itself upon the destination … we curiously wondered about.

It’s in the nature of human curiosity to explore, push out and back, and with much bravado sail into the unknown. And so Twitter was created and the surface gently skimmed by tweet pebbles, curiously looking for smiles.  Early adopters saw the opportunity to create ripples and came laden with strategies to create ways to build, delight and startle their audience. The media, by gush and by lash, called for attention, and sure enough the backlash of rock throwers and pebble skimmers created a wave-pool phenomenon, pulling the waters every which way, with new puddles appearing all over and increasingly straining the resources, like the holes in Swiss cheese.

What happened next was only a matter of time. A malicious boulder was bound to bowl in on the act and tear down those diligently created, lovingly narcissistic silky webs of the spinners and the spun. The question today is whether curiosity will unravel or consume what is left after the havoc.

Premium shopping experience may be on the slow with cutbacks at Starbucks, but there is no sign of slowing in the high-end bakery business. Whether this is because bread is truly a staple good in economic reasoning, always in high demand regardless the price, or whether loyal consumers have come to rely on the same flavoursome, high quality wares at every outlet, premium service at the respectively rounded-up prices, sampling galore and generally happy smiles from the Barista-equivalent Cobbers, remains to be seen.

So far 50 franchises have risen across 3 provinces (most notably in BC where the erstwhile Australian brand was launched in 2003) with a vision to add another 35 baker’s dozens to the map. In the US, where there is currently a single store in WA, the goal is to launch 5000 bakeries – which is an average of 100 per state, or roughly one Cobs to two Starbucks.

That’s a big vision, especially considering that the coffee giant is closing ten times the number of stores that currently even carry the Cobs logo in North America. Now that could be a deal in the making: Starbucks premises sold to Cobs, along with comfy seating and an onsite espresso machine. They clearly already share a target group, why not a common cause? 

So this is how advertising works:

  1. Half listen to ads on commute radio, trying to dodge early morning traffic jams.
  2. Go about your business, feel like you’ve done a good day’s work, think about taking a break, see a familiar sign and pull over.
  3. Walk towards door, notice new posters in yellows and browns, think “Nice”.
  4. Inside see friendly, calming green being sported by the employees, think “That’s new”.
  5. Scan the blackboard for what’s on offer and see new beverage, think “Hhhm, might try that”.
  6. New beverage arrives in very own branded cup (“made with 45% fewer carbon emissions”).
  7. Put two and two together and realise I’ve been Starbucked.

I don’t really mind, because I believe good marketing deserves its rewards. Rolling out a new product and not supporting it with all you’ve got would be wasting the only opportunity to make a good first impression. Whether the new Vivanno smoothie will fill the gap of hot sandwiches over the lunch hour remains to be seen. Touted as healthy, we all know it contains ingredients far too addictive for that, especially if you add a shot of espresso as I did. On top of which, I’d like to see how they get “one whole banana” in each of these little sample cups grass-skirted baristas were handing out yesterday!

Whoops, there goes another American brand… as the Belgian owners of Stella Artois snatch up Budweiser. Perhaps it’s not such a bad match, as beer critics suggest one brand is pretty much as bland as the other, which would explain why each relies so heavily on big advertising spend to differentiate and create an image of ‘cool’ or ‘premium’ or ‘traditional’ horse-heritage or whatever the current strategy calls for.


Joining those other non-US brands like IBM’s PCs (China) and 7-Eleven (Japan), the latest brand to change hands will have to focus on local market share erosion as national pride is likely to dig in its heels. The point is to reassure and sustain mass interest, as there is nothing more powerful than the backlash from alienated loyal consumers.


With Starbucks’ marketers coming out in force with traditional media campaigns (radio and press ice-cube ads), online loyalty programs (sign-up and get free stuff) and more sampling than ever, plus a PR campaign that boosted the share price upon the announcement that 600 stores were closing (weird that), you might wonder who is stalking the Mermaid’s lair.


One thing is clear, any company tightening its marketing purse-strings in an economic downturn needs to fire its accountancy department. Now, more than ever, is the time to use horse sense with your marketing budget and consistently remind your target audience that you are still out there.

Grouse Mountain, our local ski slope on the North Shore, has opened for business, so it’s officially time to get with the white. How appropriate for the heavens to open on the same weekend and sugar-sprinkle our lawns so that we can quickly try out the Snow Elephant – it  can be done, with plenty of Frappuccinos to get you in the size. 

How charming to see the iced peaks outlining Vancouver when the clouds roll aside. I am assured the view will soon be even better. Half a century on, Vancouver’s last giant rooftop billboard is finally heading south. Erected long before skyline restrictions were in place, the 4-decade old battle to de-clutter our resplendent view has reached a costly closure: deconstruction costs are set to cleanly wipe out all advertising revenue in one fell swoop. Never mind that building heights have continually inched up, and the city’s Skyline Study informs us that Vancouver’s flat (no British pun intended) skyline would benefit from a splash of buildings to exceed current height limits and provide a more contemporary vista. All the while augmenting those protected corridors of view of our natural North Shore beauties.

Cool. Or should I say sweet?

The new season of red products at Starbucks no longer portray both US and Canadian $ prices. Smart move, that. Here’s another move: 

When I saw – for the first time – outdoor advertising for Starbucks last year (seasonal beverages in Vancouver), I was surprised that the marketers at the green mermaid had shifted their mix to pedestrian advertising. At the time I guessed it was a local, cultural thing, and parked it for future reference. Now, however, a blitz of seasonal TV ads is about to hit national screens, initially in the US. Wieden & Kennedy, the agency that transported those other west coast Americana brands Nike and Microsoft around the world, is tasked with developing a global brand message for the red cup parade. As quoted in today’s Advertising Age, Starbucks founder Howard Schultz feels the whole advertising thing is a natural evolution to gain increased leverage. Oh well then. Certainly as the brand reaches maturity, markets saturate, share prices fall and competitors step in to cross the chasm, Starbucks feels the heat to reinvent itself, its offering, or its target audience. Does this herald a mermaid branded burger? 

Personally I feel that Starbucks would be well advised to offer free wifi in its stores. This may not induce users to double up on their caffeine intake, but it would certainly fill the seats and send out the signal to open another Starbucks just over the road.

So I have this friend who finds himself the recipient of Starbucks mugs from all over the world, while openly admitting about the coffee that he “can’t stand the stuff”. You proudly display a single mermaid, and – as if by magic – she multiplies every time a friend or colleague goes on holiday to some far flung destination. (That’s almost as mocking as the little town of Starbuck in Minnesota, which boasts two eateries and one speciality coffee shop, but there’s not a mermaid in sight.)

Why yes, Thomas, they do make Vancouver mugs (marketing is marketing, after all), and no, Thomas, you will not be getting one from Nikolaus – it’ll be a Rute for you, my friend!

This isn’t a hailstorm, it’s tipping white Frappuccinos® from a dismal Vancouver sky. Time to retreat with my new book (courtesy of Thea, Herman & Chicago airport), “How Starbucks Saved My Life”, by ex advertising man ‘Mike’ G. Gill. 
Annoyingly, the book has only been out for two weeks, but already there are g-80000-oogle links to it and next year’s movie (to star Tom Hanks). Talk about clogging up the blogging. Nevertheless, I’m enjoying the new insights the barista is revealing, even if they’re more than squeaky-clean so far.

Will it affect the current shift of 25% of coffee shares to the golden arches, I wonder? Bearing in mind that by far the biggest chunk of the green mermaid’s revenue comes from the espresso bar, not from the coffee-drip, and that McDonald’s, after successfully launching premium coffee, are now on the verge of introducing cappuccinos and lattes, I fear it will take more than a self-glorifying book to turn things around. Even if the world is clearly in the palm of their combined hands. Time to down one of those 400 billion cups that make the world go round every year …

Ah, parity! A struggle, spanning three decades – and one which no-one south of the border was probably even aware of, finally sees the Canadian loonie on an equal footing with the US greenback. Up north, however, it feels like Canada has finally won a round of Monopoly, and there’d be a big street party to celebrate – if it wasn’t for the rain. But hey, we can all nip over the border and buy cheap stuff even more cheaply. We’d have to, as retailers here (and who can blame them?) aren’t budging on the cover prices for items such as books and magazines, which display a much lower US$ price than is – today – realistic. Is that why there are so many more “for sale” bins at Starbucks these days, for all those mugs and candies and cuddly toys with last season’s ticket prices?

Once in a while it’s ok to do something a-typical, like substitute coffee for a cola, but my, doesn’t it scrub the enamel? Today I just needed something to keep my fingers on the keyboard (they seemed to have lost their will to type) without brewing yet another pot. It’s not so much the caffeine I’m craving, but a reason to get up and leave the laptop to its own devices – and maybe come back and find everything magically organized, typed up and done for the day. I love my work, I really do, but today I’m finding it a wee bit difficult to shift the mounds of paper that have somehow erupted all over my desk and it’s not like I can just grab my laptop and escape, as I made this daft promise to myself to avoid out-of-office offices (read: internet cafés, coffee shops) on Vancouver’s 50th day of garbage strikes at all costs. 

Much like my paperwork, those mountains of disposable coffee cups are really starting to mar the picture of an ~ apparently environmentally-caring nation. Those non-recyclable nor compostable single-use cups really define the society that we proudly call ours. Except I’m ok, I only drink iced coffee, and those cups are, uhm, recyclable. And Starbucks is ok, as their cups are made from recycled materials, and the lids are recyclable. And other coffee outlets are ok, as they have to-stay or reusable cups (formerly known simply as “cups” or “mugs”). (This, by the way, does not count if you drink from a reusable cup and also take a non-biodegradable one to “roll-up-the-rim”!) But everyone who brings a travel mug is just fine, too, especially as they’ll likely get a discounted shot to incentivize homemade washing-up. And everyone who just stays put languishing in front of a computer is just fine, too. So we can just go on as before, believing the hype and giving ourselves a satisfied pat on the back.

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