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Why marketing isn’t everyone’s “cup of coffee”

Most of us may not remember our first cup of Starbucks coffee. This memory recedes into the borders of our mind, unaware of the eventual impact it has on how we take our cup: plain or doused with
sugar, strong or not-so-strong.

For Jane Lau, managing director of Starbucks Coffee Company Singapore, her first cup of Starbucks coffee was credited to an outlet at an underground Japanese shopping mall.

“I can’t remember which coffee it was. All I remember is my friend’s excitement at spotting a Starbucks in Japan.”

For Lau, who confessed to resorting to coffee for “functional reasons” before that point, her taste in coffee has happily evolved to become something more of an acquired taste akin to her preferences in wine.

“I like to drink wine and similar to this, my preference in coffee has graduated to preferring bolder and heavier taste profiles,” Lau says, recounting a Starbucks-designed “origin” trip where employees get
to travel to various coffee farms in the region to learn more about the brand’s sourcing practices.

It was a trip to Sumatra that enhanced her appreciation for coffee beans.

“It was a totally rare experience where we get to see the hard work and labour of the coffee farmers,” Lau says. Taking away from this experience, Lau was inspired to contribute back to the farmers for their hard work.

Thus, the launch of Starbucks’ One Tree for Every Bag project was rolled out in September this year.

Starbucks Singapore has activated the initiative as part of its commitment to support the coffee industry by ensuring that a coffee tree is planted for every bag of coffee purchased in stores island-wide through
until September 2016.

The move to marketing

Sourcing for quality products is not exactly far from her domain expertise. Having worked at Starbucks for more than 12 years, her added cachet is her extensive background in supply chain.

Before being promoted to her current role, she was procurement director for Starbucks Asia Pacific from 2007 to 2011. In this role, she was responsible for procurement and supply chain management for a total of 12 regional markets, including Japan and China. Before that, as supply chain director, Lau led a team which successfully set up and established Starbucks’ presence in China in 2005.

She was also integral in pioneering the Starbucks supply chain team in 2001 which oversaw the establishment of all distribution networks and sourcing channels in Asia. This groundwork has been instrumental in serving as Starbucks’ base for growth in Asia.

Thus, it comes as no surprise that Lau enjoys the behind-the-scenes processes when it comes to overseeing the finished product from its point of origin. Still, adding marketing to her remit as managing director four years ago was no easy feat. Lau confesses her smooth transition is credited to her immediate team members, which include marketing director Ruth Yam.

“I have a great team and a very creative partner when it comes to marketing, so it’s all been a smooth transition coming from the supply chain sector,” Lau says.

As managing director, she is responsible for overseeing all facets of the Starbucks brand locally, including vision and strategy, business development and operations. Lau notes the various stages of marketing –
from ideation to implementation – and overlaps them with the necessary skills from her previous experiences in procurement.

As for her newly minted marketing philosophy, Lau adheres to the Starbucks’ signature style of communicating the brand via experiences.

“We want to communicate in a way that lets our customers and partners know what Starbucks is all about – a special company passionate about our coffee and the experience we provide.”

Customer experience a key focus

For the Singapore market, the company develops flavours that are tailored to the local cultural influences, while marketing them in a timely manner. The Mid-Autumn Festival, for example, inspired Starbucks Singapore to launch mooncake treats in gula melaka and pandan flavours, catering to
popular tastes in the market.

When asked her thoughts on the rising café culture in Singapore, Lau doesn’t think it poses a threat to the coffee chain. Instead, she says the trend will accelerate Singaporeans’ interest in coffee, spurring their self education when it comes to their next whiff of the brew.

This, in turn, has solidified a platform for Starbucks Singapore to expand its product offerings and speciality services. Catering to the increasingly sophisticated demands of coffee-lovers in the country, the company has since launched its premium Starbucks Reserve brand which comprises a collection of single-origin coffees in the world.

In addition, the chain launched its innovative clover brewing system – a specialised brewing technique that uses patented vacuum-press technology.

“The number of independent coffee shops has undeniably grown, and we will continue seeing this trend. However, we feel that it’s a very good thing: Starbucks is passionate when it comes to educating the consumer,” Lau says.

The proliferation of coffee shops, according to Lau, helps the chain bring product awareness to the fore: the store will continue rolling out speciality products because consumers in Singapore have become more
cognisant of the coffee options available in the market.

For example, Starbucks Singapore is launching Origami – a proprietary Japanese brewing technique – for coffee connoisseurs to broaden their coffee experience this upcoming holiday season. Thus, the prevalence of independent coffee shops provides a healthy dose of competition, raising the bar for the coffee chain to provide even better experiences for its customers.

To continually bolster Starbucks’ relevance and popularity in the market, Lau explains the creative ideation process that goes into creating the brand’s signature tastes. For instance, beverage ideas are based on research done regionally.

For Asia Pacific markets, the research and development centre is located in Shanghai where taste profiles are developed and studied to roll out Starbucks’ signature flavours across the region.

“In our Shanghai R&D centre, we conduct consumer research to develop a unique taste profile for the regional and local markets because the US taste profile compiled by the main office greatly differs from our APAC audience.”

Digital connection

When it comes to elevating brand recall, the approach is less so evangelical than it is about engaging with fans online. Powering up its communications with customers, Starbucks Singapore has pooled its
marketing strategies into its social media efforts, utilising digital platforms such as Facebook to increase online engagement.

“We’ve recently refocused our resources in creating content on our social media platforms because we want to get into the heart of the consumers’ conversations,” Lau says.

For this digital investment, the company has an in-house team that manages the brand’s digital presence while leveraging its global assets for any creative executions. The company works with media agency 16-0-2 for media buying duties in the Singapore market.

Echoing its global office’s moves, the company has galvanised social initiatives that adhere to Starbucks’ general mission statement of giving back to the community.

Lau cites the example of Starbucks Singapore’s collaboration with the Autism Resource Centre (ARC) where it hired six employees – known as partners – to work at the chain’s 100th store located at the Boat House.

“At Starbucks we pride ourselves on providing the best experience where it’s all about connecting with the people. For our partnership with ARC, we tailored our training programme to ensure that our partners are confident in the work that they do.”

Currently, Starbucks Singapore works with 10 ARC partners.

“As a parent, I can understand how a child’s ability to work independently can impact the family.”

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