Loyalty Means Saying You’re Sorry

Jan 11, 2005

By John Hennessy

The following was an email I received from Starbucks. It followed a recent promotional email in support of an exclusive Sumatra coffee.

To Our Valued Customers,

On January 5, we sent you an e-mail describing our new Black Apron Exclusives(TM) Aged Sumatra Lot 523 coffee. The message conveyed how proud we are of this new coffee, but did not address our deep sadness and concern for the tremendous loss of life and devastation in the recent natural disaster in Southeast Asia.

We would like to apologize for any unintentional offense caused by that e-mail.

The text of the e-mail was developed this past summer, several months prior to the coffee’s scheduled release. Starbucks has the utmost respect for the people and places that bring us great coffees, and the text was intended to reflect that respect.

As soon as we learned of the disaster in Southeast Asia, we immediately began working on our relief efforts. Starbucks made an initial pledge of $100,000 to aid the relief efforts, and we are also donating $2 from the sale of each pound of our Sumatra coffees, and $1 from the sale of each half-pound of Sumatra and Aged Sumatra coffees, in all North American stores to CARE (for more information, please visit http://www.care.org/starbucksgift). We anticipate that over the next few months, our efforts will raise more than $1 million. Starbucks is undertaking several additional programs, the details of which are available at our website.

However, in our efforts to respond to the tragedy, we did not address some of the marketing materials that had already been created. The e-mail that you received did not reflect our relief efforts to date. Once again, we would like to apologize for any unintentional offense this may have caused.


The Starbucks Coffee team

Moderator’s Comment: How often do you get an apology from a company? When you receive a sincere one, how does it make you feel about that company?

I know of at least one instance when a supermarket retailer defended not notifying shoppers of a food product recall that posed health risks. No attempt
was made by this retailer to contact shoppers with a personal notification of steps to take, an apology or even to make them aware of the recall.

That retailer had frequent shopper card purchase information and associated contact information that would have let it identify and reach many shoppers
who had purchased the recalled product. The defense the retailer offered for not contacting shoppers, as I recall, was based both on the retailer not wanting to invade the privacy
of their shoppers and mass media being a superior method for communicating a product recall. Sounds, at best, like spin and, at worst, like a low cost solution mentality. Neither
explanation sounds like a retailer doing everything in its power to help its shoppers. Efforts to engender loyalty = 0.

In contrast, we have Starbucks.

I thought the initial Starbucks Sumatra coffee email promotion was ill timed in light of the devastation the Tsunami caused that island. I cringed a bit.
I perceived Starbucks as a better operator than that.

The willingness of Starbucks to step up and quickly communicate an apology stands out as an exception. They were wrong, though unintentionally, and they
were quick to admit it. They hold themselves to a higher standard. This should be a common practice. Instead, ducking issues and excuses are more common.

Whether this apology was the result of customer feedback or someone within Starbucks realizing their gaffe doesn’t really matter. They issued the apology.

The willingness of Starbucks to issue a prompt apology absolutely helps them and their image with customers. This public apology makes it clear that they
share the concern of a vast majority of their shoppers for the victims of this tragedy. Most will forgive and forget. Some, like me, will note the uniqueness of this response
and raise our perception of the brand.

Even when they trip and fall, Starbucks is able to find a quarter on the sidewalk.
John Hennessy – Moderator

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