Inside Starbucks's $35 Million Mission To Make Brand Evangelists Of Its Front-Line Workers

To Starbucks, baristas are not just baristas—they are ambassadors of brand, merchants of romance, disciples of delight. The company recently invested millions in a "Leadership Lab" designed to drill that message in for 9,600 store managers. So did it work?

"It makes me proud," declares Fawnya Ramirez, a Starbucks store manager from San Mateo, Calif. We’re standing in a 400,000-square-foot conference center in Houston that currently feels more like a Starbucks theme park.

Nearby, amid 5,000 live coffee trees, are photos of smiling farmers along with information about Starbucks’s ethical sourcing initiatives. Ramirez’s voice suddenly cracks, and she breaks into tears. "There’s just so much good that goes into a little bag of coffee," she says, wiping off her cheek.

She still has about 300,000 square feet and 20 exhibits to go in what Starbucks calls its "Leadership Lab," a high-gloss, two-hour, theatrical experience that was the highlight of the company's recent conference for about 9,600 Starbucks managers, each of whom, the company notes, "essentially run $1 million+ small businesses."

The lights are dim, with an occasional accent ray of orange or green. And an awe-inspiring soundtrack—something you might layer over B-roll of a majestic mountainscape—completes the reverent ambiance. It’s like being immersed in a Starbucks commercial.

Of course, Starbucks doesn’t generally run commercials. What it does do, and what makes this three-day spectacle practical, is to mobilize its employees to be brand evangelists.

"[Employees] are the true ambassadors of our brand, the real merchants of romance and theater, and as such the primary catalysts for delighting customers," Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz wrote in his book, Onward. Give them reasons to believe in their work and that they're part of a larger mission, the theory goes, and they’ll in turn personally elevate the experience for each customer—something you can hardly accomplish with a billboard or a 30-second spot.

Click the image to view the Slideshow

U.S. companies spent an estimated $67 billion on training in 2011. Some have been more creative about it than others. P&G CEO Bob McDonald, for instance, says he invites 150 leaders each year to a training center like West Point or the Center for Creative Leadership. General Electric spends about $1 billion annually on training through its corporate university in Crotonville, N.Y. PepsiCo enrolls its high-potential leaders in a program that includes a week at Wharton Business School and an immersion experience in an emerging market. General Mills has described one of its leadership courses as "a combination of mindfulness meditation, yoga and dialogue."

Starbucks’s Leadership Lab is, as its name implies, part leadership training, with a station that walks store managers through a problem-solving framework. It’s also part trade show, with demonstrations of new products and signs with helpful sales suggestions, such as "tea has the highest profit margins." The majority of experiences are meant to be educational, including several that give store managers access to top managers of the company’s roasting process, blend development, and customer service.

But what makes the Leadership Lab different than a typical corporate trade show is the production surrounding all of this. The lights, the music, and the dramatic big screens all help Starbucks marinate its store managers in its brand and culture. It’s theater—a concept that Starbucks itself is built on.

"The merchant’s success depends on his or her ability to tell a story," writes Schultz. "What people see or hear or smell or do when they enter a space guides their feelings, enticing them to celebrate whatever the seller has to offer."

In this case, Starbucks is selling its employees the Starbucks brand. And it has given the Leadership Lab the same attention to detail as its store ambiance.

As Valerie O’Neil, Starbucks’ VP of global communications, puts it: "[The experiences] are wrapped in a very inspirational journey, so partners can walk away not only understanding and informed, but feeling it."

Of course, making employees feel something is much more difficult than making them understand it. That’s why at the end of the Lab, Starbucks doesn’t just have its employees write down something they’ll commit to do in their stores and tuck it away. It has them enter it on a laptop and pulls the strongest themes into a ceiling-high word cloud, a panoply of customer-friendly verbs: Connect. Inspire. Smile. Ask.

Every foot of the five-football-field-sized event space is infused with dramatic theatrical flourish. A customer service manager teams up with two local improv actors to act out difficult in-store scenarios. Tazo tea gets a sky-high display (or is that an altar?) distinguished with purple and orange lights. You can even rake real coffee beans, if you want more hands-on knowledge of how beans are harvested.

The whole shebang ends in a pristine white room where benches face a massive Starbucks logo, inviting you contemplate the company's mission statement: "To inspire and nurture the human spirit—one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time."

It feels more like a chapel than the exit space for a conference trade show.

In addition to the electronic commitments, employees have another opportunity to graffiti at the end of the Lab.—Click the image to view the slideshow

Starbucks’s mission statement, which at one point in our interview O’Neil and Starbucks’s senior VP of global coffee recite in singsong unison, was the sole focus of a similar exhibit at Starbucks’s 2008 conference in New Orleans. At the time, the company was struggling. Sales were, as Schultz puts it, in "free fall," and shares had lost 42% of their value the year before. It was not, investors thought, a good time to invest $30 million in a conference.

Starbucks is a different company today, its leaders claim, in part because of that "galvanizing" conference. For the last 11 consecutive quarters, it has reported either record earnings or revenue or both. But the $35 million it invested this time around is still not a small chunk of change. Some might view this elegant, glitzed-up exhibit as, well, a bit excessive.

But not the employees, who appear to have fully bought into the Starbucks story. At several points in the exhibit, tables intended for journaling are actually being used for journaling. One exhibit displays the shoes of typical Starbucks customers along with snippets of feedback designed to inspire empathy (Red madras flats: "My toddler accidentally kicked my cup of coffee off the table. They were immediately there helping me clean up and bringing me a new cup….they made me feel special, not embarrassed.") One woman picks up a patent leather pump and looks at the bottom for a price tag, but another group exchanges fond stories about customers in their own stores, based on various shoe types.

A wall instructs managers to pick up a Sharpie and share problems they are facing in their stores. It is covered in frustration. But the managers say the experience made them feel important to Starbucks. Even inspired.

"When your company invests in you like this, if you say [this is silly] you should be kicked off the island," Karissa Sullivan, a store manager from California, tells me.

Coffee beans need to dry after they're picked. In order to prevent mildew, farmers rake them constantly for three to eight days. Starbucks's employees get the five-minute version of the experience.—Click the image to see the slideshow

"I’m not rah-rah about anything," another store manager tells me later that day, after he’s had a few hours to soak in the exhibit. But he has an excuse. "I’m Canadian, we’re a little more subdued."

The manager, who wished not to be named because he likes his job, says that some of Starbucks’s well-meaning vocabulary can be hard to swallow by the time it filters from the company’s executives into each of its 18,000 stores worldwide. For instance, the habit of referring to all employees as "partners" can sometimes feel like so much marketing whitewash.

He didn’t feel that way about the Leadership Lab, though. He said it made him feel more passionate about what he does. Tim Messer, a district manager from Scotts Valley, Calif., also assures me that "The investment the company is making will see a great return in terms of inspiration."

After spending two and a half hours in the exhibit, even I am swimming in Starbucks feel-good. I’m not crying. Nor am I ready to make the Starbucks’ mission statement my personal mantra. But I feel darn fuzzy about the broader, positive social implications of venti lattes.

If Starbucks can give all of its managers, and by extension, their store employees, the same feeling, it might not ever need commercials. Even if it does need 1,000 lighting instruments, 445 chain motors, 120 speakers, 21 projection screens, a three-week-long installation process, and 5,000 live coffee plants to pull it off.

[Image: Flickr user Allisonmseward12]

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  • Nicholas Kontopoulos

    As someone who travels globally for work I often reference 'Starbucks" as being my 3rd office (outside of my home and work offices) - I am always impressed by the consistency in the experience provided whether I am in Shanghai, Las Vegas or London. 

    It goes without saying that the two most valuable assets for a firm are its customers and its employees - if the later are treated well and love what they do the former will benefit and want to comeback, which ultimately helps drive revenue growth as well as overall profitability for the business.

    So, personally I applaud Starbucks leadership for making these investments which have clearly paid off.



  • Kimberlee Morrison

    This is a great example of how a company can create connections in its employees to the culture the company values. It's clear that this "galvanizing" increases engagement by helping employees see meaning in their work. And purpose is one of the biggest keys to creating a highly engaged workforce. 

  • David Lemley

    The key learning here is that brand
    evangelism cannot be faked, cannot be bought and must part of the culture. When
    done well, as in the case of Starbucks, the company benefits from top of mind
    awareness and, because their employees are their strongest advocates, great
    street cred which results in long term growth.


    Nicely done, Starbucks, nicely done!

  • Jose Palomino

    Your employees are the greatest asset to your brand, as long as you make them your ambassadors.

    This means ensuring that they are happy and are bought in to the mission of the company.  It's not an easy feat -- and yes, it takes extra time and energy -- but it will go a long way.  You'll have less turnover (which means your employees are much more equipped to help your customers), you'll have a positive work environment (which will make people happy to come to work, and thus more productive on the job), and you'll have to spend less money on advertising (since they do the advertising for you).

    Starbucks certainly is doing this the right way, and we should all take note.  I've known many a barista to go out of their way on their hours off to talk about Starbucks coffee or a new product -- not because it's their job, but because they love the company.  Don't you want your employees to do the same?

  • Klausefluoride

    Starbucks is doing this the wrong way.

    While the company is pulling in record profits, employee healthcare premiums have doubled, pay has stagnated, and benefits have been cut.

    If Starbucks thinks they can make their employees forget about their dwindling compensation through corporate seminars, and have them work harder and longer for less pay, they're in for a big surprise.

    What Starbucks employees really need isn't corporate training programs, what they need is a union.

  • Michaelrramprashad

    i will drive my car from lake county to orlando three times  a day with your logo all around my car

  • Chen_Dogg

    As a company, they've really gone hard at their managers buying in, and I applaud their efforts. Its almost surreal to see such effort, but as you said Sarah, it's paid off in recent years. It's actually bizarre, that Tazo Tea statement, because just 2 weeks ago I was chatting to a manager (not partner) and he recommended I get a tea! his reasoning was that I was foreign, but now I doubt that be the underlying drive... 

    My problem, though, is that as much as they drive home the goodness behind their brand and inspire their employees through emotional tales of the good they do for those involved, they're still an exceptionally well oiled corporate machine, and their employees are funnelled into holding in-store personalities they despise. A friend of mine used to work at Starbucks, and she eventually made an exit because she just could not take the extremity of the shplurb she was required to spew on a daily basis. Maybe it was personal reasons, or maybe it was just TOO MUCH brand advocacy from her manager? 

    Either way, I have a 16 oz. cappuccino with a cardboard ribbon awash with gods of green sitting on my desk that a friend bought into the office for me, and I'm enjoying it.

    The bottom line though, is that if I want a cup of coffee, I'll go down to the corner store and get one from my local brew-house, and have a conversation with a girl who will tell me whether or not she's had a bad day, and there'll be more of a personal connection than the paper contract behind her employment.

  • Andy Rosenberg

    Really great feature Sarah - great to learn more about how major blockbuster brands such as Starbucks continue to understand the very core basics of marketing even as their business continues to skyrocket.

  • Nathan Hornby

    'Partners' works for John Lewis employees because they are an employee partnership, i.e. their employees share the profit of the company.

    Starbucks can't just start calling their baristas 'Partners' because it sounds more inclusive, it's cheap and saccharine - and even vaguely insulting.

    Unless of course they do profit share, which I would be extremely suprised about.

  • Sarah Kessler

     Hi Nathan, Starbucks does have stock options for even part-time workers, which is the origin of the "partners" habit.

  • Nathan Hornby

    Stock options aren't the same thing as a Partnership profit-share - assuming you mean what I think you mean.

    Better than nout though!

  • ericbrody


    Yes, $35MM is a lot of money. But even as a shareholder, I applaud the effort. 

    Because great companies are built on the backs of inspired and mobilized teams who drive brand and business from the inside out. And I would imagine that this theatre format of bringing to life brand and culture is much more engaging and genuine for these particular "partners."

    Branding is ultimately about credibility. The credibility to deliver on the promises you make. Which starts with internal teams who take their cues from the actions of leadership.  In this case, I imagine those actions were incredibly inspiring.

    Eric Brody  

  • Klausefluoride

    The best way to mobilize a team is to give them a stake in the success of the company.

    While Starbucks is making record profits and paying out incredible sums to shareholders, employee healthcare premiums have doubled, pay has stagnated, and benefits have been cut.

    These trainings are brainwashing and can only go so far in motivating employees.

    You know what Starbucks employees need? Better wages. Better benefits.

    A union:

  • Nathan Hornby

    Your attitude is refreshing for a shareholder - quite often it's for the sake of shareholders that things like this DON'T happen, even though they have clear long term financial benefits.

    Invest in more stuff, Mr Brody.

  • Andrew

    Now all it does is to get its finance department to do the same thing. Paying no tax in profitable territories tanks your brand.