Starbucks wants to be “a beacon for coffee lovers everywhere,” but they also want to be purveyors of “everything else that goes with a full and rewarding coffeehouse experience.” The question is, Does devoting time and energy to being “so much more than what we brew” take away focus and resources that could instead be spent on providing the best possible coffee?

About Starbucks

Since 1971, Starbucks Coffee Company, according to its website, has been committed to ethically sourcing and roasting the highest-quality arabica coffee in the world. Today, the company sells more than 30 coffee blends at 17,000 retail stores in 50 countries. Starbucks is named after the first mate in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The company’s mission is: To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.

Positive Themes

Consumers like the “coffee variants” at Starbucks, meaning the choices among black coffee, iced coffee, instant coffee, Frappuccino and many others.

  • Starbucks instant coffee is awesome! But i do love the coffee bean! (source)
  • I don’t want to sound pretentious, but I love iced coffee from starbucks :) vrooom vrooom !!! (source)
  • i love starbucks frappuccinos!!!! with vanilla!!!! yummy :) coffee makes me happy!!!!!! (source)

A promising new product is Starbucks’ VIA instant coffee (although they don’t use the word “instant,” probably because it has bad connotations).

      • Starbucks “VIA” instant coffee stuff is pretty good. I said it. (source)
      • Animetric’s World , I’d like to try Starbucks VIA Ready brew because I love brainstorming sessions over a good cup of coffee. Good thing, great coffee is now available anytime, anywhere with Starbucks VIA Ready Brew. (source)

Coffee drinkers like the “yummy taste” of Starbucks, which is a catch-all for specific comments like “freshly brewed taste,” “delicious,” “strong flavor” and others.

      • To all of my coffee drinking friends. One of my clients gave me a bag of coffee from starbucks that is soooo good! Tons of flavor nice and strong. It’s called Ethiopia. (source)
      • I love starbucks its so yummy! When i grow up i want my bedroom to smell like starbucks coffee! (source)

The stimulant effects of coffee are a positive for many consumers, which they express as “keeps one up.”

      • So tired. I need to start sleepin early… wanna thank tina lam for starbucks gift card. The coffee is kinda keepin me awake. (source)
      • It’s 3:00 a.m. Still wide awake! Starbucks coffee really works for me. Just 1 more hour till the Korean World Cup game. (source)

For some, Starbucks is a “comfort drink.”

      • Thank you Jesus for Starbucks! Also, thank you for my unfailing belief that a good cup of coffee can make you feel better and thank you most of all for all the other concerns in my life that make the sugar/calories I consume in a cup of Starbucks the absolute LEAST of my worries! (source)

Negative Themes

People think Starbucks coffee is “costly,” meaning overpriced or expensive or both.

      • What else can i say….Only in the Philippines….where Starbucks Coffee is more expensive than Gas !! (source)
      •  For me Thats over 400.00 a year. Ok It is a recession I for one am going to protest. I will not buy Starbucks gifts or drink their coffee. I will find a cheaper place for mochas. Sorry to all my family and loved ones but those Starbucks cards are no longer happening. (source)

Others find it’s “not good tasting.”

      • I dont buy Starbucks coffee for the taste. I think Dunkin is better. I buy it so everybody knows im a hipster and i have money. (source)
      • used to LOVE starbucks but lately it tastes awful. I cant find anyplace to get a decent coffee…i wish there were more seattles best. (source)

“Poor quality” is a common negative theme, with people criticizing, among other things, the beans, the inconsistent taste, and the lack of coffee with chicory.

      • I’ve discovered that I can no longer drink starbucks. It’s low quality coffee that’s way overpriced. Thank god for french press (:.(source)
      • I need to find another type of coffee thats stronger! Starbucks just dont do it for me anymore. (source)

Some consumers complain about “side effects,” one of which is “can’t sleep,” which we remember was considered a positive attribute by some.

      • My Starbucks coffee will not allow me to sleep!!!! Mr.Sandman please find me, I need you. (source)
      • I think my kidneys hate Starbucks coffee, because I’ve had a cafe americano(hot or cold)everyday for like two-three months, and all that espresso must have some effects on my body lol. (source)

Some consumers find a downside to the coffeehouse experience that Starbucks likes to promote.

      • The 2 things I dislike about Starbucks is that it can feel like your sitting inside a freezer and when you leave after being inside for more than an hour you smell like a coffee bean! I’m taking my coffee bean smellin’ self to the gym! (source)
      • starbucks was an awful choice to use free internet i hate the smell of coffee. (source)

Some consumers link the negatives of high price, poor quality and elitism in their negative comments.

      • Now I recall why I stopped going to Starbucks. Mediocre coffee, and full of snobby self-proclaimed intellects who order really complicated coffees. (source)
      •  I’m tired of Starbucks. I’m tired of people carrying around the cups like it’s a status symbol. ‘I’m trendy enough to buy an overpriced caffeinated drink’. (source)


In theory, we’re sticking to comparing coffees in our series of coffee netnographies, but Starbucks, on its website, talks a lot about what it offers besides coffee—a meeting place, a community, ethical sourcing, and so on. Fair enough, and in general people like them for it (in fact, 26 million people have liked them on Facebook), but that’s different positioning from Peet’s or Philz, which have a laser focus on great coffee.

Starbucks is taking a calculated risk with its gourmet brand image by coming out with VIA Ready Brew. It’s instant coffee—you make it by adding hot water to ground coffee beans—but they never call it that. The gamble is apparently paying off, though, because VIA shows up in the Positive theme chart and not in the Negative.

Starbucks wants to be perceived as a purveyor of the best specialty coffees, and a segment of consumers agree. The company touts the variety of coffees they offer, and that’s also a hit with consumers. In fact, those are the top two positive themes. But “not good tasting” is the second-biggest negative theme, which means a segment of consumers feel there’s a disconnect between positioning and perception regarding the taste of Starbucks coffee.

And speaking of positioning, when you sell relatively expensive, specialty, gourmet coffee, you’re bound to bring out the anti-snob sentiments in some consumers. Starbucks has its fair share of detractors who think a Starbucks coffee has become an overpriced status symbol.

From a marketing point of view, the “Starbucks experience” is a differentiator that helps attract and retain specialty coffee customers. That experience even attracts consumers who come more for the coffeehouse ambiance than the coffee itself. Starbucks knows this and refers to its locations as a “third place,” that is, somewhere between home and work. Not everyone, however, likes the experience. Some complain they leave smelling like coffee (imagine that), which they don’t consider a fair trade-off for getting free internet.

Still, it’s hard to argue with the company’s current success in selling both coffee and the coffeehouse experience: In November 2011, the company reported record fourth quarter and record fiscal 2011 results.

Can you be critical of their coffee? Some consumers can, but once again, it’s a matter of taste, and plenty of consumers like Starbucks. Is it expensive? Well, “costly” is the biggest negative theme, but arriving at that judgment depends on what you’re comparing it to—Starbucks is more expensive than no-name coffee, but probably not more than other premium brands, though it’s difficult to do an exact apples-to-apples comparison.

Starbucks is succeeding in offering premium coffee and an experience consumers like—no wonder the company is worth about $31 billion.

About Our Approach

This case study is a form of social media analysis called a netnography—a qualitative, interpretive research methodology that adapts the traditional, in-person ethnographic research techniques of anthropology to the study of online communities.

To write this netnography, NetBase analyzed thousands of posts from consumers about the brand. The posts are automatically sorted into Positive or Negative classifications by our natural language processing (NLP) engine, then we manually sample those posts.

To summarize a netnography as we’ve done here, we distill our findings into useful insights about how the brand we studied is positioned and perceived. We can provide our source data and confidence intervals for the percentages in the theme charts upon request.