Last week, the Harvard Business Review published a long interview
with Howard Schultz. The Starbucks CEO talked about the coffee
company's many moves to win back customers and battle against the ill
winds of the recession.
As evidence of Starbucks' rebound,
Schultz pointed to the biggest of the social networking sites out
there. "We're the number one brand on Facebook, he boasted.
in fact, was the first brand to top the 10 million-fan mark. Just to
put this in perspective, that's more fans than the entire population of
New York City (8.2 million) and all but seven states in the U.S. That's
more Facebook fans than its closest rival, Coca-Cola (8.3 million fans)
and way more than other large global brands.
McDonald's has 2.5
million fans. Target has 1.43 million, Abercrombie and Fitch 1.37
million, and the trendy teen clothier Forever 21 totals 1.27 million.
Among high-end food and food-related brands, Ben and Jerry's has 1.35
million Facebook fans with Whole Foods lagging behind with just 296,152
The other day, my Facebook page (I have 302 friends) told
me that many people who like Barack Obama also like Starbucks. Turns
out the President is one of Starbucks few Facebook rivals. He has 10.9
million fans, a few more than Starbucks. But Starbucks still has more
fans than Sarah Palin (1.93 million), Mitt Romney (460,832), and Bill
Clinton (353,583) combined.
Most pop culture figures don't reach
Starbucks' level of fans either. Apart from Facebook leader Michael
Jackson (16.6 million) and Lady Gaga (12.9 million), the coffee giant
has more online backers than Bruce Springsteen (880,459), Adam Sandler
(5.44 million), and even teen idol Justin Bieber (7.88 million).
it comes to coffee companies, there is no contest. Starbucks' closest
competitor (in terms of its number of cafes across the U.S.) Caribou
has 154,754 fans. Peet's has 45,497. Not long ago, Time Magazine
wondered if the famed Portland, Oregon independent roaster Stumptown
might be the next Starbucks. Not on Facebook. It has only 10,780 fans.
BEHIND THE FACEBOOK NUMBERS
the business side and from the side of studying culture what do all
of these numbers mean? Clearly, brands and personalities have turned to
Facebook to market their products, enhance their image, and communicate
with their customers. But beyond that what does this new form of fandom
mean, beyond a sort of crude measure of popularity?
"I signed up
because they do promos through Facebook, a high-school friend, who is
also a Facebook Starbucks fan, wrote to me in a Facebook message, "I
just wanted a free soy latte once in a while.
When you do click
on Starbucks' Facebook page, it doesn't go right to the wall to the
message board like most individual accounts do, but to a promo page.
There you can find out about new drinks, new social responsibility
programs, and the many advantages and discounts associated with a
Facebook is also a place for Starbucks, and other
brands, to solidify brand communities. I asked another of my Facebook
and graduate school friends why she clicked on the Starbucks fan
button. She told me, "I am a genuine fan of Starbucks and don't mind
letting folks know that. Back in the 1990s my husband and I were
introduced to the coffee by friends and former Seattle residents … We
ordered Starbucks coffee by mail for years until they opened the first
NYC store near us on the Upper West Side … So I guess we were, I
don't know, pioneers? Early adopters?
The wall on Starbucks'
Facebook page is an easily accessed and widely used electronic bulletin
board for brand shout outs. Posts come in every ten or fifteen seconds.
In a matter of minutes, fans from across the globe trumpet their
favorite drinks, their favorite stores, and their favorite baristas.
Even though there are 16,000 Starbucks around the world, this isn't
enough for some.
"We need a Starbucks in Adairsville, GA … Sigh, one fan submitted.
helps, then, to affirm brand loyalties. And Facebook does serve, as
Howard Schultz suggested, as a barometer of Starbucks enduring value
and its customers' fidelity. So do the numbers. Last week, Starbucks
announced a 9-percent quarterly jump in sales and 6-percent hike in
store traffic. But these numbers pale in comparison to the company's
soaring fan count on Facebook.
So the question is how deep is
that Facebook commitment? What does it mean to click a fan button and
how valuable are "fans to brands?
Perhaps my friend who called
herself an "early adopter is typical of this new form of brand
loyalty. "I signed up to be a ‘fan' of Starbucks on Facebook, she
explained, "back when I first started using the networking site. I was
pretty enthusiastic and perhaps a tad indiscriminate back then.
other words, Facebook fan numbers surely serve as a rough indicator of
popularity, but this is still only a "weak commitment. Just ask
Starbucks' closest Facebook competitor, Barack Obama. He has lots of
fans, but that hasn't stopped his approval rating from falling.
Simon is a professor of American history and culture at Temple
University and the author of "Everything but the Coffee: Learning about
America from Starbucks.