I like to joke about Starbucks once in a while. It's fairly mainstream and as a wannabe-coffee-snob, it's easy to crack a joke about their infamous pumpkin spice latte. I don't like their fast-food offer at all but I do like the service and the coffee is OK.
Service at Starbucks is exceptionally good though. It's a distinctive quality of their product. For me at least. When you go to a coffee shop in the morning you don't want to be greeted by depressed folks. Starbucks people are smart, caring, funny and very helpful. The coffee does taste better in that environment. And their culture nurture this competitive advantage. To understand it, I suggest you listen to this interview of Howard Schultz on how he built Starbucks.
There's the story when he fought for his employees to have access to healthcare. The story he shut down stores (worldwide) for a half-day training. The story he brought all store managers together in a stadium to tell them Starbucks was not going well and they needed to work together. The story when Bill Gates Sr. helped him fight a business tycoon who wanted to outbid him. And the story about him growing on poor in Brooklyn and seeing his dad let down as a low paid construction worker.
It's easy to judge big corporations and dismiss them because they're mainstream. Sometimes, it's worth looking into their past and better understanding the values they're built on. I like Starbucks a bit more now. I better understand their service is not just a marketing tactic, it's simply a consequence of having a distinctive company culture, that was shaped by people with good values. Howard Schulz says the most undervalued characteristic of great leaders is asking for help.