How Will You Expand Your Brand?

Take a cue from Starbucks: Turn customers into marketers

by John Graham

Mr. Graham, a principal with  GrahamComm, is a marketing and sales consultant and business writer. He publishes a free monthly eBulletin, “No Nonsense Marketing & Sales.” Contact him at, Visit

The idea that marketing is something that companies do is so ingrained in the business mindset that it’s impossible to think otherwise. Yet, that’s exactly what needs to happen.

It’s true that many marketers enthusiastically avoid the traditional marketing label with energetic efforts to recalibrate their careers. No matter what you call it, pull the curtain back and marketing largely remains an “activity” or a “function” with the mission of engaging customers for the purpose of selling them a product or service.

And, there’s the rub. Contrary to popular thought, the heart beat of a business enterprise is neither “making sales” nor “making money,” although this is why many of us continue to think that is why businesses exist.

All of that is dead — and for one reason: it doesn’t work today. In fact, it hasn’t for quite awhile. It’s exactly what occurs when a company such as General Motors is forced to recall nearly 1.37 million vehicles because of a defective ignition that reportedly caused 31 deaths, a flaw the company knew about for more than a decade, but kept under wraps. Why? Because it flew in the face of “making sales” and “making money.” All this led to the announcement that the newly minted CEO was, in effect, taking on the additional title of “Chief Defect Correction Officer.”

Steve’s dad got it right

Steve Jobs understood this better than just about anyone. He tells of how he came to appreciate perfection by watching his adoptive father, a skilled mechanic and handyman, build a bookcase and giving the back of the bookcase the same attention, care and finish as the front. This was why Jobs always showed us the inside of Apple products, not just the outside. It was all about excellence.

This is also what it takes to turn customers into marketers. It negates the need to keep pumping out “new” whiz-bang products every 90-days to beef up sales.

It’s about taking customers seriously, bashing barriers of access and answering inquiries promptly to the customer’s satisfaction. It’s about keeping promises and not making customers chase you. It’s about meeting challenges with grace and transparency. It’s about creating confidence and making a company believable.

Turning customers into marketers

The real Marketing Revolution rejects the idea that marketing is something companies do and embraces the view that the business of business is turning customers into marketers.

Starbucks’ Founder Eric Schmidt offers a clue to why this happens, when he states ever so boldly that the company isn’t in the business of selling coffee

Why are Apple customers so loyal that they’ll wait two years for the next iPhone, while other tech firms shout “get ours now”? Why is it that Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Wegmans customers are always ready to tell others where they shop? How often do Safeway, Kroger or Stop & Shop customers speak so passionately about where they buy groceries? Why do so many customers drive past a half-dozen other coffee shops to get to a Starbucks and then queue up in a slow moving line, all-the-while talking to people they’ve never seen before as if they’re old friends?

Starbucks’ Founder Eric Schmidt offers a clue to why this happens, when he states ever so boldly that the company isn’t in the business of selling coffee. In fact, he goes so far as to say that there are plenty of places to get good coffee in Seattle (and elsewhere, we assume).

It’s clear that Starbucks is at a different place. Each of the company’s 170,000-plus employees worldwide has the mission of turning Starbucks’ customers into marketers for the company. This happens when there’s consistency between customer expectation and customer experience. There’s no mistaking the fact that it works since the number of stores keeps growing, as does Starbucks’ annual revenue.

Turning it around

Unlike Starbucks, Whole Foods and Apple customers, most companies are in full battle mode as they fight to make every sale, engaging in a never-ending struggle to make the numbers. While there’s endless talk about it being a jungle out there, the situation is quite different today. The jungle is now inside the company, as everyone — employees and companies alike — angle for the top prize in the game of survivor. And in spite of all the claims that companies are “customer-focused” and “customer-centric,” the evidence suggests that such rhetoric is far more hype than reality.

So what can be done to turn customers into marketers?

  • Make embracing customers a company’s reason for being. “Marketing is not about selling more,” states Kaila Colbin, a serial entrepreneur. “It is about finding those people who resonate deeply with your brand and forging a joyful connection with them. It is about a meeting of the minds, the hearts, and, then and only then, the wallets.”
    Only when customers feel deeply that a company is serious about understanding them and is passionate about satisfying them do they become believers.
  • Make a commitment to excellence. Not only have most consumers come to accept watered down quality as a fact of life, they feel helpless to do anything but live with it. When we can’t understand why we need to buy a new washer and dryer, the well-trained salesperson reminds us that the average washer and dryer have a life expectancy of about 10 years. “I always thought it was longer,” we say. But, wait a minute. Why is it that some European brands last for 20-years and longer? They may cost more, but their owners are active marketers, unafraid to recommend them to anyone who will listen.

It doesn’t make any difference whether it’s a product or a service, excellence inspires confidence — and that’s the secret ingredient for turning customers into marketers.