Howard Schultz Elevated The Art Of Corporate Storytelling
Inspiring leaders are great storytellers. Their conversations transport you to another place that goes well beyond the physical attributes of the products they sell. Few corporate leaders have elevated the art of storytelling as much as Howard Schultz.
As Schultz ends his career at Starbucks, stepping down as executive chairman, his story comes full circle from where it began—Milan, Italy. Schultz calls the opening of Italy’s first Starbucks Reserve Roastery “a fitting end” to his career, “a milestone moment.”
The Milan story is now part of Starbucks folklore. You know it by now. It goes like this. Once upon a time...
An executive from Seattle visits Milan and is entranced by the coffee culture. He describes it as “the symphony of flavor, the romance and showmanship that coffee could create.” He sees the potential to develop a similar culture in America. He returns to Seattle with an idea to create a “third place between work and home.” Of course, like any good story, there’s a hurdle. His partners don’t share the dream. They just want to sell beans and coffee equipment. He was crushed. He leaves the company, opens a concept store that reflects his vision and, two years later, buys the original company from his former partners and turns it into the Starbucks we know today.
Signature stories define the brand. The Milan story is a great example of a signature story. Business professors David and Jennifer Aaker define signature stories as “an intriguing, authentic, involving story with a strategic message that enhances the brand, the customer relationship, the organization, and/or the business strategy.”
Leaders like Schultz never grow tired of repeating their signature stories to inspire new employees, customers or stakeholders. For decades, Schultz has told the story frequently and consistently, even using the same language to describe the event. In his 1997 book, Pour Your Heart Into It, Schultz described the Milan coffee shops as a “symphony of romance and community.” Twenty years later, Schultz told Oprah Winfrey about the Milan experience. “I walked in and saw this symphony of activity, and the romance and the theater of coffee…creating a sense of community.”
The founder’s signature story is a simple and powerful way to deliver the authentic experience consumers crave. Howard Schultz’s Milan story hits on the three dimensions of authentic brands, defined by marketing professor Julie Napoli as: heritage, sincerity, and commitment to quality. Your customers want to know where a product comes from or what inspired it. They want to know who the people are behind the company, and how committed those people are to delivering a quality product.
Starbucks isn’t finished importing Milan culture to America. The coffee chain now owns and plans to expand its independent bakery, Princi. The bakery, too, started in Milan and built a renowned reputation in Europe. Princi’s new U.S. locations will bring the “spirit of Milan” to American cities. Clearly, Schultz’ original visit to Milan continues to infuse the Starbucks brand.
Customers don’t buy a brand or a logo as much as they buy into a set of values. And there’s no better way to reveal a company’s values than through the stories that fueled the people who lead it. “Every company must stand for something,” Howard Schultz says. “A company can grow big without losing the passion and personality that built it, but only if it’s driven by values and by people. The key is heart.” Inspiring leaders touch the heart—and storytelling is the vehicle they use to get there. Stories that touch the heart never get old.