The Reviews Are Wrong: 3 Valuable Marketing Lessons From Onward, By Howard Schultz


Reviews of Schultz’s book, Onward,  have not been good.  The Wall Street Journal called it self pomotional hype and Forbes criticized him for talking about problems in the company that investors were not aware of.  There was also a negative review over at the Brand Autopsy  blog by someone who had worked on the Starbucks brand.  It seems to me the criticisms were targeted more toward Schultz personally than toward the book.

Yes, Schultz does paint of picture of himself as saving the brand but whether that value judgment is true or not does not get in the way of the valuable messages of the book.

Onward offers several business lessons and communicates them beautifully in the form of actual stories.  So it was necessary for Schultz to talk about himself in order to make his points.

How  A Mission Statement Supports The Healthy Growth of a Business

The most powerful lesson:  the importance of core values and a mission statement to the survival and success of a company.  Schultz speaks often about the centrality of the quality, provenance, smell and experience of making and dringking coffee to the business.  He tells a story of how twice during the period that the business was out of his control, the mission was usurped by a drive for revenue that put the chain in conflict with its core values.  My favorite example  (for which Schultz was criticized as providing to much detail) was when breakfast sandwiches were introduced.  Adding breakfast sandwiches was a new, growing source of revenue. Unfortunately, it hurt the brand’s ability to provide the coffee drinking experience which included the rich aroma of coffee that was supposed to hit customers as they entered the store.   Instead, the smell of burnt cheese on sandwiches overtook the smell of coffee.

The second story was when “efficiencies” were introduced into the system that meant that espresso was not poured at the rate that was best or the milk was reheated to make foam.  Schultz’s message:  a) focus on the essence and meaning of your company b) refer to the mission and core values when making a decision c) reject anything that may move your forward financially if it is in conflict.  I thought that was a powerful message.

Of course, every marketer knows that you need to stick to your mission and core values, but these stories made the idea stick.  My take-away was this: when you need to make a decision about a business practice, policy, or new product, check your mission statement.  It will give you a shortcut and provide guide rails for making that decision.

The Purpose of Emotion In Selling Products

The second lesson (and yes, I knew it but Schultz’s stories helped this stick) was how important emotion is to the consumer’s decision-making process and how all of the senses are involved in creating an emotion.  Here’s a quote from the book: “The blend of craftsmanship and human connection, combined with the warm aroma and energizing flavors of fresh coffee, struck and emotional chord.”  And this: “That . . is what merchants do. We take something ordinary and infuse it with emotion and meaning, and then we tell this story over and over and over again, often without a saying a word.”  How else could anyone make a business out of a commodity like coffee?

A Product Is Just A Commodity Until It Comes With an Experience

And finally, Onward is about creating and experience, which every marketer has to do.  Here is what Schultz says on that subject: “Starbucks was not built through marketing and traditional advertising.  “We succeed by creating an experience that comes to life.. . The equity of Starbucks’ brand was steeped in the unique experience customers have from the moment they walk into the store.  The aroma. The sense of community. . . . ”

I found Howard Schultz’s book to be an enjoyable read.  It communicated its points clearly, with impact, and with inspiration.  In the end, I will be a better marketer for having read it.  That’s pretty much all I can ask for in a business book.

3 Responses to The Reviews Are Wrong: 3 Valuable Marketing Lessons From Onward, By Howard Schultz
  1. Melody
    April 20, 2020 | 9:47 pm

    I like how you pulled out the real messages in the book, and brought them to the forefront of your review. Many of the negative reviews get bogged down in details out of context.
    I thought the most meaningful story was the Sorbetto story. Howard describes himself as nearly ebullient over the product, and faces a harsh reality that it’s not profitable as product, even if it tastes good. I saw lots of lessons in there about passionately experimenting with innovation. And, I personally, I really liked how yummy Sorbetto was!
    Thanks for the review.

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