“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.
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.
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.
“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 ]