Ten Things Churches Could Learn from Starbucks (Hint: It’s not about making coffee)

By Ken Howard

Editor’s Note:
This article on what churches can learn from Starbucks was written at the Kingsview Village Starbucks.

Churches could learn a few things from Starbucks…

Starbucks is one of those places that, even if you don’t go there, you know it’s the place to go.

It’s the number one coffee shop in the United States, maybe even in the world. It’s almost like Starbucks was selling something addictive…

They are, of course. Starbucks sells coffee, which contains the drug caffeine. But as far as we know, Starbucks coffee contains no more of the drug than the coffee sold at it’s two biggest coffee competitors, McDonalds or Dunkin’ Donuts. Starbucks doesn’t even sell better coffee, regularly coming in #3 behind McD and DD in blind taste tests.

It’s not about advertising, either. Starbucks hardly does any, compared to its competitors. You won’t find the Starbucks mermaid popping up on your TV next to the words “I’m lovin’ it.” Nor will you find a single billboard proclaiming, “America runs on Starbucks.”

So if it’s not about better coffee, stronger caffeine, or better advertising, what is it? Why are so many people addicted to Starbucks? If you ask the Starbucks CEO, he’ll tell you. It’s not about making better coffee but about the Starbuck’s experience. Starbucks knows how to create an experience and provide a sense of community that fill a deep-down need.

So let’s ask the real question, “Why are so many people addicted to the Starbuck’s experience?”

Here are ten reasons:1

Reason #1: Starbucks’ mission (the “why”) is greater than their product (the “what”). Starbucks’ mission is “to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.” Inspiring and nurturing human spirit is so much greater of a mission than selling people coffee in neighborhood stores. It is transcendent and transformational. It aspires to make a difference in the world. People want to be part of something greater than themselves.

Lessons & Questions for Congregations. For a congregation to be vital and effective, its vision and mission also must be greater than its product. To learn from Starbucks, ask yourself: What is your congregation’s product/service (what it does every Sunday)? How is that different from your congregation’s vision (what it aspires to be) and mission (why it exists)? In what ways are the latter greater from the former?

Reason #2: Starbucks is focused on a definable market. Knowing that one size does not fit all, what churches can learn from Starbucks is that they focus their attention on a particular segment of the market. They don’t exclude other portions of the market from coming. Rather, they realize that while a vision and mission can be transcendent and transformative, a product and its market must be finite and focused.

Lessons & Questions for Congregations. God’s love may be infinite but congregations’ human and financial resources are not. Effectiveness requires focus. Congregations must make choices about which segments require their primary focus. Has your congregational leadership define its primary target group(s)? How would you describe them?

Reason 3: Starbucks studies its market(s). Starbucks does a lot of market research. They try to determine not only what the people in their chosen market wants (what they are consciously looking to buy), but also on what they likely need to feel comfortable and at ease (needs of which they may not even be consciously aware).

Lessons & Questions for Congregations. If congregations want to learn from Starbucks must understand their target markets at a similar depth, not only determining the wants they will have when they visit the first time, but also discerning their deepest needs, which when met will plant in them a desire to stay. Do you know the wants and needs of the people in your surrounding community? How would you describe their wants? How would you describe their needs?

Reason 4: Starbucks designs its entire business around its customers’ wants and needs. Starbucks’ CEO says of their marketing strategy, “Sell them what they want, but give them what they need.” Starbucks customers may visit because they want coffee, but they stay because Starbucks has met their deeper needs through the things they simply give away. The next six reasons will describe some of the deeper needs Starbucks addresses and how they meet them.

Lessons & Questions for Congregations. People may come to a congregation for great worship, but unless the congregation provides them with great community – a deep sense of connectedness with God and each other – they may not stay, and they will never become truly committed. To learn from Starbucks, ask yourself: How does your church strike this balance? How do you provide for people’s wants? How do you address people’s needs?

Reason 5: Starbucks stores provide an intentional experience. Think of all the senses engaged when you visit a Starbucks. There is, of course, the aroma of dark roasted coffee beans in the air. Some suggest that Starbucks roasts its beans longer than most places not to improve the taste of the coffee, which is an individual sensation, but to intensify how it smells when you open the door, which is a shared experience. Then there’s the Smooth Jazz playing in the background, the barista and other workers moving about assembling your coffee, the visual atmosphere that says, “You’re in a Starbucks,” and all those other folks either bopping in and out or hanging out and chatting or working on their laptops. Even when it’s a brief experience, it’s an all-encompassing one. What churches need to learn from Starbucks is that non of this just happens… It’s part of the Starbucks business plan.

Lessons & Questions for Congregations. Clearly, congregations need to put more attention and intentionality into the experience people have when they visit, yet most congregations leave much of that experience to chance. It’s not a question of whether people will have an experience in your congregation, but whether the experience they receive at your hands is the kind of experience you want them to have. Strongly liturgical faith traditions, like my own Episcopal Church, have the capability to provide an intentional, all-encompassing experience, but we don’t provide it as often as we could, because sometimes we just lack sufficient intentionality. How much of the experience that your church provides attendees is intentional? How much “just happens?” What aspects the experience work well? What needs to be added or improved?

Reason 6: Starbucks stores provide a gathering space. Starbucks aims to be not just a coffee shop, but also a “neighborhood gathering place” and “a part of the daily routine.” Some have observed function as socially necessary “third space” – a neutral, common ground where people of many different persuasions can meet, connect, make friends, make plans, and get things done. Some say they are “the Church of the 21st century.”

Lessons & Questions for Congregations. Congregations used to provide that “third space,” where diverse people from neighborhoods gathered in community as part of their daily routines. But now, more often than not, they stand apart from the communities they are called to serve. What is your congregation’s relationship to its neighborhood? Does it serve the community? When it serves the community, does it do ministry to the community, or does it do ministry with the community? How could the relationship change for the better?

Reason 7: Starbucks stores provide a welcoming sense of community. Have you noticed how when you show up at a Starbucks, several employees greet you and ask you how you are doing? They actually seem to be happy to see you. And amazingly, the smile on their faces when they greet you almost always seems to be real. They seem to be happy at their jobs, perhaps in large part, because whatever job they are performing at the moment, they seem to believe that their real job – their calling, if you will – is to engage you as part of their little community. They treat you as a friend. And because they do, you can’t help but like them…maybe even come to trust them. And most people would rather buy a decent cup of coffee from people they like and trust than the best-cup-of-coffee-ever from someone they don’t.

Lessons & Questions for Congregations. For places that are supposed to be all about welcoming community, congregations don’t always do the best or most intentional job of creating it. To learn from Starbucks, ask yourself: Does your congregation intentionally work at creating a welcoming sense of community from the start? Do your greeters/ushers like their jobs? Are they selected because they demonstrated the gift of hospitality? Or because there was a job to be done and a warm body to fill the position? Do your greeters open the door or wait for the visitor? Do they introduce themselves and ask visitors’ names? Do they offer to make each visitor a nametag? Do your members actually wear their name tags? Do all members know that they are in the business of welcome? Do congregation leaders and members make time to talk with newcomers about their needs and gifts?

Reason 8: Starbucks stores provide familiarity and consistency. While each Starbucks store is a little different in its layout, the atmosphere is remarkably consistent from store to store. People know what expect, and that makes them feel comfortable and “at home.” And while some of the products change seasonally, there is a core that never changes: you can always get your “Pike’s Place.”

Lessons & Questions for Congregations. In creating an experience for their attendees, congregations have to find a similar balance between parts of the experience that can vary for the sake of variety, and a core experience that remains relatively unchanging. What are parts your congregation’s experience are allowed to change? What parts are so core to the experience that they seldom if ever allow to change?

Reason 9: Starbucks knows that rite and ritual are important, and Starbucks stores provide it. Rite and ritual? Yup. Starbucks has liturgy: You are welcomed, you line up at the register, one person takes your order and writes it on your cup, another other makes it a certain way, and you pick it up at the end from a special counter. Starbucks has special liturgical language: you don’t order a medium coffee; you order a “Pikes Place grande.”

Lessons & Questions for Congregations. We got this one. If anything, however, our names for things – Eucharist, Host, and Intinction – are perhaps even more obscure than Grande, Venti, and Trenta. But considering the fact that Starbucks can turn even buying a cup of coffee into a meaningful rite, maybe we in the Church ought to find ways build liturgy into more of everyday life’s activities, not less. What new rites and rituals has your church developed in response to the needs of its people?

Reason 10: Starbucks stores provide a place to achieve. Have you ever noticed how many people are actually do their work at Starbuck, tapping away on their laptops doing homework, writing reports, or catching up on correspondence? People go to Starbucks not just to drink coffee, but to actually get things done.

Lessons & Questions for Congregations. Back in the day, when I occasionally started to feel trapped or distracted in my office at the church, I would often go to Starbucks to do some work. Somehow being surrounded by seemingly creative people busy at be creative made me feel more creative, too. But because I generally was wearing my clerical collar, I was also pleasantly surprised by the not infrequent opportunities I had to talk with people about deep and important things about life. Then, when I finally gave up my office at church to make another classroom for our growing Sunday school, I began to work almost exclusively out of a local Starbucks (unless it involves a meeting over a meal). I do wonder, though, how could we make church more of a place that people could go to achieve? Thoughts anyone?

Am I saying the Church should emulate Starbucks?

No, not really. Obviously, Church and Starbucks exist in two different realms. But I am saying that churches can and should learn from Starbucks.

Different realms. On the one hand, as a profit-making public corporation, Starbucks exists in the realm of the secular. Ultimately, their success or failure is measured in money. Unless their marketing strategies translate into sufficient profit, they will cease to exist. Churches, on the other hand, exist in the realm of the sacred. We are – or at least we ought to be – more about the “business” of training prophets – those willing to speak the truth to the world – than about making profits from the world.

But are they really? I am questioning whether there isn’t more overlap between those two realms that we think: maybe not 100%, but not mutually exclusive either. Some of Starbucks marketing strategies – like driving up perceived value by creating a sense of exclusiveness and scarcity – are antithetical to the “always enough” and “room for everyone” values of the realm of God values. Still, most marketing strategies are value-neutral, and marketing itself is defined as promoting a fair exchange of value. And if places like Starbucks are in some ways supplanting the “third space” role of the Church in many people’s lives, I think we need to ask if they have figured out ways to connect with people’s lives that we might learn from.

After all, Jesus did call us to be “in the world but not of the world.” And if Jesus was willing to challenge us to be “wise as serpents” yet “innocent as doves,” would it be so bad for us to be as “wise as mermaids.”

An afterthought…

What if Starbucks marketed more like churches?

Watch the video below to find out…


1 Most of these 10 reasons were adapted from information obtained from the Starbucks official website or from online forums about Starbucks.