No passive, one-sided communication…

23 Jul,2015


Marketing at Tata Starbucks Private Limited outlets is more of building connections with customers, says Manmeet Vohra, Director – Marketing and Category of the international chain which open its 75th outlet in the country in Bandra today. The lady behind the much-seen but less-advertised brand speaks on what has kept the buzz going, ever since it made its India debut in October 2012.


From your first store at Fort in Mumbai to the 75th one in India, how has the journey been so far? 

It’s been amazing. In less than three years, we’ve reached the 75th store milestone. For Starbucks, India’s been [one of] the fastest growing markets. It’s been overwhelming to see how customers here have embraced us. We still get long queues every time we enter a new city or a different location. The excitement of the brand is very much alive.


You have stores with proper seating, and you also have kiosks. Going forward, what’s your focus going to be?

We have two or three classifications for our stores. Some of them are ‘flagship’ stores, like the one in Horniman Circle in Mumbai, Hamilton House in Delhi Indira Nagar in Bengaluru and Koregaon Park in Pune. These stores are special in terms of design, decor and space. For instance, the Hyderabad flagship store has drawn its inspiration from Hyderabadi pearls. Then there are ‘core stores’ and ‘corporate stores’ which are in commercial complexes, and are more like corporate stores. So all this is a function of the space available, and the neighborhood you’re in. But the one common thread is that all the stores reflect the values of the neighborhood and the spirit of the area in which they operate.


While the familiarity with the Starbucks brand is high, were there challenges with the brand over the last three-odd years?

The welcome we got when we launched has continued, and it’s really encouraging that we have been able to bring more customers to our stores. And not just the ones who have traveled abroad. So, more people have accepted us.


Every time a new store opens, there’s a lot of local advertising and promotion. What’s been your stand on promotions?

First, the offerings we have are designed — in terms of food, beverages and merchandise — to suit the needs of a wide variety of Indian customers, with regard to local sensibilities, culture and palette. We’ve made sure we have the signature blueberry muffin alongside a murg kathi wrap. Food is very important for Indians. A lot of our customers look forward to coming to Starbucks not just for coffee, but for the complete [dining out] experience.


Another thing that attracts more customers is the connection our store partners have been able to create with them. It’s a key ingredient to a brand’s success in India. Starbucks’ store partners are not addressed as ’employees’ but ‘partners’. And this really reflects in the warmth and passion with which they make every handcrafted beverage. That connection between our customers and store partners has become stronger, as reflected in our loyalty programme. Customers are choosing to come to Starbucks over any other place because of this feeling of a connection.


The third thing we’ve done is to engage with customers through various campaigns. One of them is the ‘Meet me at Starbucks’ campaign, launched in November 2014. The campaign turns on the need of people to meet, rather than be in touch over the phone or SMS. Today, youngsters are spending more time on their phones and laptops rather than with their family. In a world where everyone’s connected through social media, Starbucks emphasises that need to meet. So what we’re trying to tell our customers is that Starbucks is the place you can come to: a unique ‘third place’ (away from home and office) where you can meet people or spend time with friends and family, or talk business etc.


Players like McDonald’s are doing similar things with their ‘Kuch offline ho jaye’ campaign, and connect with customers is a given in most snack outlets. How do you ensure there’s differentiation in what you do?

Coffee has a strong social connotation. In a tea-drinking country like India, even people who drink tea at home, will go outside for coffee. These are some unique insights our brand has noted. We’ve actually seen customers come in for coffee, stay for the warmth [of the treatment from store partners] and come back for the human connection.


What’s your biggest marketing tool? Is it the relationship your store partners have versus typical tools like ATL or BTL?

Beyond the product, the customer looks for an emotional connection with the brand. And that emotional connection is what is required to build any marketing programme or brand communication. For us, it’s not just about a marketing campaign or a promotion, it’s about creating experiential marketing to build that emotional connection. And a big USP of our brand are our store partners who are really our brand ambassadors. Another way in which we connect with customers is through the ‘fourth’ or digital place. Your communication is not complete as a brand unless you also connect digitally.


In terms of your spends (marketing and advertising), what’s the distribution like? Digital versus BTL, experiential and ATL?

About 30 per cent each on store experience and digital. The rest are miscellaneous elements. That’s how much importance we’re giving to not just connecting at the store level, but also in the digital space. It’s important to have these ongoing conversations with customers — whether it’s through social media or our ‘meet me at Starbucks’ programme. Recently, we had a summer campaign called ‘Starbucks Fun Ventures’, in which we engaged with youth influencers. And in the internet space, we had great engagement with food and beverage enthusiasts and bloggers, and got people like Sonakshi Sinha, Rannvijay and Saina Nehwal involved.


And what about mass media advertising?

We don’t believe in passive communication.


As you go pan-India, are you looking at doing television and print advertising at all?

Some of it is important purely from an awareness creation point of view. For us, it’d be more from an awareness objective, than engagement. And 95% of my focus is on engagement marketing, not on passive, one-sided communication. Plus, every two months we launch new beverages. Recently we had the Alphonso mango Frappuccino, and our Christmas beverages are hot favorites. There’s a bit of awareness-led communication that one needs to do, but our focus is always on how to put engagement in the whole communication.


Do you run campaigns on social media or is it all organically grown?

A lot of organic conversations happen on our social channels — through bloggers and old assets — but we’ve also done a lot of campaigns like ‘Meet me at Starbucks’. We ran that campaign selectively in Bengaluru because it had a larger younger audience. In the internet space, we had a microsite called We asked people to post stories and asked others to vote on it. There were stories that got up to 28,000 likes, and showed that people spent an average of 4.18 minutes on the site. And that’s a lot of time. These kind of things tell us that people want to engage with us.


Is there any change in strategy for markets in the south, where coffee drinking is already big?

One of the things we did for our Chennai launch was offer a special pour-over set there. This is a method of brewing coffee that we had especially for Chennai so that customers can buy from our selection of coffees, take it home and brew it using the pour-over system. Apart from this, the offerings of the brand have been quite consistent, whether in Chennai or Delhi.


From the time you started to now, on the basis of insights that you’ve had, has there been a change in strategy that you employed to get more customers?

In our product offerings, we have made certain modifications, given the local touches that we’ve created. In terms of food as well, we’re constantly introducing new items in keeping with the Indian taste palette, which appreciates international offerings but also wants its own comfort zone.


What’s the next milestone and how fast do you think it’ll be achieved?

We are already the fastest growing market for Starbucks worldwide, and I think the journey is pretty much clear ahead of us. We are going to be in locations where our customers want us to be and where they expect us to be. We’re constantly evaluating new locations, new cities, new geographies. So we are definitely going to grow beyond the current six cities we are present in, and go to other metros as well.


Could you give any rough indicators about what kind of targets you have for the next year?

We are evaluating more cities in the north, and more in Gujarat. We’re there in the main metros of the west and south already. We want to evaluate and move forward in some cities in the north.


This interview first appeared on on July 20




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