Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Did Clausewitz Drink Coffee?

Over the last day or so the otherwise unremarkable arrival of another cake product at Starbucks has blown into a social media storm of moderate scale.

With some splash, Starbuck's proudly announced the "invention" (and that word's important) of the "Duffin", essentially a doughnut, made from more muffin like substance, and shaped like a muffin. Could be okay, like Starbucks' coffee in general, could be awful, a little like their Pumpkin Spiced Latte. Chances are most people would be blissfully unaware of the Duffin, ordering what they always do, and long term survival of the said cake would have been utterly dependent on whether the store staff we interested in pushing it, and whether it managed to get enough traction to sit alongside the usual Blueberry Muffin style things. My gut feel is it would have struggled, and come Easter we'd hear no more of it, but that's not the point.

The point, as has been adroitly raised by Bea Vo, who runs a quartet of nice coffee shops in Central London, is that Starbuck's didn't invent the Duffin. Not even close. Bea's of Bloomsbury have been selling them for over 3 years. It appeared in their cookbook in 2011. Countless food bloggers and reviewers have written about them. I've been to Bea's a number of times, I must confess to not having sampled a duffin, but overall the experience of going is lovely, friendly staff, nice surroundings, and very good coffee.

Bea is highly accomplished in using social media tools to build her business. Her twitter feed has the thick end of 10,500 followers, and the tone taken is consistently conversational and friendly, ranging from passing the time of day to promoting film evenings. It's unsurprising that her response to the duffin incident harnessed this, and what a job she's done. In a series of tweets opinion has rightly been roused against a big corporation appropriating the hard work of a small independent and then compounding matters by trademarking 'Duffin' - which given the amount of prior art out there seemed a particularly pointless act.

There's something interesting about this though. Bea's four shops are dwarfed by Starbucks presence in London, let alone the UK. More than this however, the experience of going to Bea's is entirely different to that of going to Starbucks. Indeed, I'd argue that the two don't compete in any meaningful way, Bea's isn't really taking custom from Starbucks, and I don't see Bea's target customer base being realistically tempted by Starbucks; certainly in Bloomsbury the existence of a Nero just down the road doesn't stop Bea's being pretty full a lot of the time. In the greater scheme of things, right now these two companies don't matter to each other, and I suspect that may well have driven Starbucks and their suppliers thinking when appropriating the Duffin, and making claims such as 'only available at Starbucks'.

But - there are winners and losers when engaging in the battle for hearts and minds, and the results to date, with extensive twitter (#duffingate) and main stream media (Guardian) coverage, are clear. Starbucks once again look like a faceless behemoth, lose the chance to get some positive coverage, and all in all look staid and unresponsive, caught with their hand in the cake tin, and not really having much to say about it; a small independent comes across with integrity intact and showing they've got the courage of their convictions.

It's easy to brush over this, remember, right now I don't think the two parties in this disagreement really compete against each other. But competitors come from somewhere, and all empires end, and when Starbucks falls it might be because someone is fundamentally better at figuring out what the centre of gravity is, seizing the zeitgeist and making their products desirable  Bea Vo's only got four shops at the moment, but what happens when she breaks out of her City/East bastion and opens one in Victoria? Or King's Cross? Or New York? There's a part of me that thinks Bea's have played Starbucks undeniable misstep with considerable aplomb.

Did Clausewitz drink coffee? I don't know, just in the same way I've no idea what colour the boathouse in Hereford might be.

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