Starbucks and the need for innovation, community and diversity of thought
A view from Maria Sebastian

Starbucks and the need for innovation, community and diversity of thought

As the brand reaches the milestone of 20 years in the UK, its top European marketer reflects on the ideas that help her achieve success.

Inspiring loyalty

Marketing is about understanding the growth drivers of the business, and creating inspiring and differentiated products and experiences that result in customers’ loyalty. It’s about growing the business by delivering on a brand promise with every action.

The difference between marketing and other functions is that it is inherently about the future and thinking ahead about what will be effective in months and years to come. With this ambiguity comes the need for an element of bravery, both within the marketing approach and with individuals on a team, as well as a balance between creativity and business acumen.

Coffee and connections

My roles have always spanned the US and EMEA. The thing that really attracted me to marketing and drives me in my day-to-day role is working on consumer-led brands that have a strong, meaningful purpose behind them. This is why Starbucks was a natural fit. For me, the role of marketing is to be the voice of the customer – and that’s easier when you are one.

Although I will always love travel and what it enables, I decided to make a complete change, moving from the travel industry to a high-street coffee brand.

Working for an airline, particularly one such as Virgin Atlantic (where I led the global sales and marketing teams) that focuses on long-haul flights, means that the points of physical contact with customers are generally less frequent.

I wanted the opposite challenge of engaging with customers who visit us often every single day, understanding a different customer base and routine behaviour.

Whether it’s a moment for yourself, or a chance to catch up with friends, I love that coffee enables that connection. A brand such as Starbucks offers a more frequent level of customer engagement and loyalty when it comes to marketing – all rooted in brand purpose.

Innovating our product line-up

As a brand that can have a daily interaction with its customers, there is an expectation for Starbucks to innovate and lead the category at pace and scale. This comes to life across three main areas: people, place and product.

On the product side, I am very proud of our cold coffee menu expansion over the past 18 months and seeing the growth of customer preference for cold coffee. It has been a great opportunity to innovate in this area and bring our passion and the expertise that we’ve learned over the past 40 years for hot coffee to cold. We started with the introduction of Nitro Cold Brew in London in spring 2017 and a few months later we introduced the Cappuccino Freddo, which takes its inspiration from Greece.

Our product innovation also includes our commitments to sustainability. We’re working hard on continuing to push ourselves forward to reduce our impact on the environment, ranging from our leadership efforts on recycling and reusables, all the way to sustainable sourcing and farming practices. As a brand, it is what customers and our partners expect from us and it’s what we expect of ourselves.

Internal engagement

Building relationships with external consumers is essential, but so is engaging our internal partners. This has also been an important part of my work, ensuring that we continue to support our values as part of what we do every day.

This includes our collaboration with the Send a Cow charity and helping coffee farming communities in East Africa develop effective and sustainable farming practices, right through to our Starbucks Pride Alliance, which supports and advocates for our LGBT partners. Our people are central to the brand and communicate this passion every day to our customers.

And at our core since the beginning is our role providing stores that can be a "third place" between home and work. Ensuring we are delivering that community meeting place and creating an opportunity for customers to experience Starbucks has been an exciting journey.

We’re continuing to redefine our customer experience and have stores across EMEA that offer a Reserve Bar, meaning customers can watch our baristas brew their favourite coffee in a range of ways – whether that’s from a syphon or straight out of the tap with Nitro Cold Brew. It’s one of my favourite things to do – I take my favourite coffee, Nicaragua La Laguna, and can easily spend an afternoon sitting at the coffee bar trying it made in different ways.

September will mark an incredibly exciting time for us on this journey, as we’ll be unveiling our new Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Milan, our third after ones in Seattle and Shanghai.

Diversity of thought and approach

A key thought I keep in mind when building my team is "diversity of thought and approach". I have found that this results in stronger teams that come up with the most effective and robust ideas. We challenge each other in ways that reflect our breadth of backgrounds but, at the same time, we work with unified passion to grow and develop the brand.

I have both an analytical and a creative background, having studied both economics and dance, but my leadership team includes scientists, linguists, creatives and even an aeronautics engineer – and I have the privilege of learning from them every day.

Looking to the future

The world of marketing has evolved rapidly with the growth of tech and digital. The most notable change is the fragmentation of channels; the varied range of digital platforms gives us the opportunity to offer more frequent and relevant customer engagement moments that are more targeted and personal, giving the customer a better ability to take part in a brand experience.

For Starbucks, we use digital tools to improve the customer experience, making it more convenient, relevant and efficient for our customers.

The evolution of data and digital also impacts customer expectations. Brands are expected to drive personalisation with customers viewed as individuals.  

As marketeers, one of our main aims is to evolve our one-to-one relationships with each individual customer. Any brand that can deliver an experience you go out of your way for is the future of retailing. We are focusing on this through the development of experiences that drive customers into stores, both in the digital and physical space.

Maria Sebastian is senior vice-president for brand, marketing and product for Starbucks EMEA and a member of Campaign’s Power 100