The first time I needed to deliver insights on demand, I had no idea what I was doing. That’s because I wasn’t a strategist yet; in fact I didn’t even know the role existed. Lucky for me, I had the benefit of being mentored by some geniuses who did know what it was, and they got me started off on the right foot.

Here’s the story: after getting out of film school and working in Hollywood for awhile, I got discouraged by it all and moved to Seattle to become the writer I had always intended to be. Which meant I needed a day job.

During my job search, I somehow found myself in a conversation with a charismatic guy named Scott Bedbury, talking about an ambitious company that had just hired him. The company was Starbucks and Scott was the new SVP of Brand. 

Before Howard Schultz lured him out of early retirement, Scott had been the worldwide head of marketing for Nike. During his time there, he played a leadership role in bringing the brand up from third place behind LA Gear (!), through the Bo Knows and Just Do It eras, to become the #1 athletic brand in the world, a position it still holds today.

I had no clue about any of that. I was a wanna-be screenwriter who had optioned one script and written a couple of others that got some notice, but still hadn’t sold anything. So I needed a j-o-b, and that’s why I was talking to Scott.

He talked a great game about how Nike had exhausted traditional marketing and it was time to do things a new way. He spun a dazzling vision about how Starbucks could do things differently, without using the hackneyed playbook of yesteryear. 

I was impressed, but I told him I didn’t know a thing about marketing. I’d gone to USC film school, worked on indie movies good and bad, did my time in the studio system, and was looking to write things I believed in. Marketing was a foreign concept to me.

“Good,” I remember him saying. He wouldn’t have to un-train me. He could tap into the skills I’d honed in Hollywood to help him fulfill a vision he had for a new approach to marketing based on storytelling. This was in the late 90s, mind you, before storytelling became something everyone claims they know how to do on their resume. 

Although it sounded fascinating to me, I told him I wasn’t interested. I was a writer, dammit, and I needed to spend my precious time writing. However, I did say I’d be happy to help out for a couple of months in whatever way I could while he looked for people who were interested. 

And with that, I worked for Scott at Starbucks for five years, jumpstarting my strategy education in what was at the time one of the fastest growing brands in the world. And those geniuses I learned it from? Scott of course, but also Jody Hall,  Jerome Conlon, Kim Malek, Arthur Rubinfeld, and the boss himself, Howard Schultz.

 

“Go Off and Do Some Thinking”

One day a year or so into my two month gig, Scott asked me to go off and do some thinking about what Starbucks could mean in culture. Nowadays I would take that as a request to go find useful insights or a Big Idea / BOI. Back then I took it as a charge to get away of the office and think about how to describe what made Starbucks unique.

The company was growing fast and had recently hired a bunch of disciplined operators who focused on sales per square foot and quarterly financials and throughput. Scott worried that if we didn’t develop the brand into something more durable and differentiated, we’d become the McDonalds of coffee. Which is a funny thing to say now, because I’d never even heard of the word differentiated back then.

One more confession: I didn’t actually drink coffee at that time in my life. I first went to Starbucks because it was a short walk from my office at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood, where I was an assistant in the Feature Film Development department. Because I’d worked on the TV side of the studio, I knew some of the writers on Frazier had discovered the small Starbucks on Larchmont Blvd and they raved about it to the rest of us.

I’d go there to write, naturally. That’s why I was in Hollywood after all. It worked for me because I loved the vibe and the music and the smell and the design. At the time, it was refreshing and egalitarian in a way that Hollywood really wasn’t. Harvey Weinstein pretty much ran the town back then and now we all know what that means. It was an ugly and depressing and oppressive and dispiriting place. Starbucks is where I would go to get away from all that. 

When Scott sent me off to think about what made Starbucks unique, I grabbed a stack of research books and headed for a local coffeehouse called Zeitgeist in Seattle’s Pioneer Square. I felt like I needed some separation from Starbucks to give myself a bit of perspective on the brand.

I found a spot at the window, watching the rain come down and checking out the people around me — tattooed pierced hipsters and multicultural tech geeks; a couple of new moms and a gray haired man reading an actual newspaper; a few business suits and two cops. And then I got hit by what I call the lightning strike of insight — Starbucks shared a lineage with the European coffeehouse, where for centuries the aristocracy and local commoners could freely mingle. 

That got me off and running. I cracked open a book and read about how, in the 1600s, coffeehouses were called penny universities because for just a penny, anyone from any rung of the social ladder could buy a cup of coffee and debate the issues of the day. I read about how ideas were shared, art was created, music played, and ideologies spread across Europe. I read some who claimed the Enlightenment was born in the coffeehouse and others who claimed the French Revolution was.

At some point in the thick of all that, I grabbed my trusty notepad and wrote a note to myself — “Starbucks is the American version of the European coffeehouse,” with another note about becoming “a hub of art, music, literature and culture.”

Lofty perhaps, but I was after a big idea and this felt like one. I wrote it up as a white paper called It’s the Coffeehouse, Stupid and sent it to Scott. 

Lots happened with it after that, mostly above my pay grade. But I got lucky: the idea had traction and did what it needed to do — move the needle with the people who made decisions. 

More importantly for this story, it was the first time I developed an insight for a brand. It was also the start of my journey as a strategist who had to learn how to go from being lucky at developing insights to being good at it.

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