The paint scheme that is sure to save Starbucks

Posted by Rob Walker on March 18, 2008
Posted Under: Uncategorized

An unusually love-song-ish story in the WSJ today tells us all about Michelle Gass, a Starbucks executive who is apparently a key architect of whatever comeback strategy the massive chain is supposedly pursuing. My favorite detail:

At Starbucks’s Seattle headquarters, Ms. Gass converted a conference space down the hall from [Howard] Schultz’s office into what she dubbed the “transformation room,” where she huddles with other executives to hash out the new plans. Ms. Gass had the room painted red and purple with the hope it would help create an atmosphere of action.

Oooooh! That is so outside the box! That is crazy — a red and purple room, man that is really going to inspire some action. (Ms. Gass explains that she is “not a traditionally trained strategist,” and never even worked at McKinsey or Bain, so that’s how she comes up with those kind of ultra-rad ideas like a red and purple action room.)

Apart from reminding me just how glad I am that I work for myself, what this made me ponder was how a detail like this can be treated at different points in the arc of a company’s story. In this article it’s definitely serving as an indicator of energetic behind the scenes action.

But if the same thing came up after the fact as a reporter was piecing together some kind of aftermath “what went wrong” story about some brand/company that had gone off the rails, I guarantee you this detail would be evidence of how that brand/company had lost its way and taken its eye of the ball. “They painted a room red and purple as a way of inspiring action — too bad they were spending time and money on conference room paint jobs instead of innovating and serving their customers,” etc. etc.

Not that I’m saying Starbucks is off the rails, I have no opinion on that. I’m saying the “meaning” of details like this can be spun a number of ways, depending on the context.

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

Reader Comments

Does she also have one of those “titles of the future” like Chief Innovation Officer? Once again, based on the context, that detail could play either way.

Written By Kevin Dugan on March 18th, 2008 @ 10:09 pm

Agreed, for sure.

But oddly, unless I’m missing it, I don’t think her title is mentioned.

Written By Rob Walker on March 19th, 2008 @ 10:45 am

A lot of articles rave about the creative energy of company offices like those of Pixar, designed in unusual ways. If you watch the making-of piece on the DVD for “The Incredibles,” the space in which the animation was actually made looks like any other office space, crammed overfull with equipment and people.

I don’t know how much physical surroundings influence the quality of products created; but I can say that the home office I currently work in, in my basement, is sort of depressing. Small windows, low drop ceiling, cheap paneling. Surely I could produce much more wonderful work if I were in a lofty space with floor to ceiling windows and exposed brick walls.

Written By Cynthia Closkey on March 19th, 2008 @ 11:56 am

Surely this says more about the state of business journalism than it does about Starbucks plan for “recovery” (are they really so bad off?) What may have been mentioned in a passing comment could have been emphasized by its inclusion here while more significant efforts go unnoticed because they’re too complicated or too confidential.

I’m sure the people working on the project appreciated the attention to their environment… as long as that wasn’t the ONLY thing expected to drive change.

Written By Todd W. on March 19th, 2008 @ 12:46 pm

Isn’t this the kind of thing so wonderfully spoofed in IBM’s current campaign? The ideation room, the avatar, corporate-speak bingo, etc. So maybe people aren’t waiting until things fail to call BS on stuff like this.

Written By Irene on March 21st, 2008 @ 12:35 pm

Irene — I actually don’t know those ads. I’m not watching enough TV, obviously. I’m pleased you mentioned “ideation” though, that’s by far my favorite bit of lingo these days. It’s like a memo went out that you can raise your fees 10% if you add “ideation” to your services offered.

Todd W — Yes, this post definitely was more of a comment on coverage than on Starbucks itself. If I had to bet, though, I would bet that it wasn’t a passing comment, it’s something the company pointed out as a sign of serious effort etc. etc. And even if it wasn’t my point in this point, I do think things like “action rooms” are absurd.

Written By Rob Walker on March 21st, 2008 @ 2:09 pm