Is Starbucks Doing La Boulange or is La Boulange Doing Starbucks?
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Is Starbucks Doing La Boulange or is La Boulange Doing Starbucks?

October 1, 2013

When Howard Schultz came back as Starbucks’ CEO in 2008, change started to happen. Being both a brand marketer and intensely passionate about food, I have been watching Starbucks carefully and inching my way back to the brand I once loved. I really want them to prove that a brand as big as they are can deliver a great experience and quality food. And in recent years, Starbucks has had some pretty big wins with me, the biggest being their fresh food offering. I LOVE their perfectly sized snack boxes with simple, healthy ingredients like quinoa and kale that I feel good about eating. The recent launch of La Boulange pastries, however, has been a big letdown and I'm left asking myself what happened?

Back in 1995, I was a big fan of Starbucks. At the time, I was traveling a lot for work and appreciated the consistently decent cup of coffee I could order no matter where I landed.  For years I enjoyed the same daily breakfast routine: a Starbucks Double-Tall Nonfat Cappuccino and a scone. Still now saying “Double Tall Non-Fat Cappuccino” brings back great memories of that time!

Although grateful that Starbucks had brought café coffee culture to the US,  by 2005, my feelings about Starbucks had changed. I was living in San Francisco and getting my coffee from a local, family owned chain of coffee shops known for rich, strong, South American coffee flavors. It was nothing fancy but I loved the eclectic neighborhood atmosphere and their delicious coffee. In my mind Starbucks had become a fast food brand, pretty closely positioned to McDonalds. It upset me that there was a Starbucks on every corner, the interiors had that worn feel of a fast food restaurant, the coffee did not taste good and all the scones were topped with either giant sugar crystals or sickly sweet maple frosting. It was obvious that Starbucks had gotten too big and had lost control of its brand experience.

When Howards Schultz came back as CEO in 2008, change started to happen. Being both a brand marketer and intensely passionate about food, I have been watching Starbucks carefully and inching my way back to the brand I once loved. I really want them to prove that a brand as big as they are can deliver a great experience and quality food. And in recent years, Starbucks has had some pretty big wins with me, the biggest being their fresh food offering. I LOVE their perfectly sized snack boxes with simple, healthy ingredients like quinoa and kale that I feel good about eating.

Very recently, however, Starbucks has had a big fail! I had such high hopes for the Starbucks rollout of La Boulange pastries that launched a couple of months ago, but I have been badly let down and am left feeling very disappointed. While living in San Francisco I was a frequent brunch goer at the locally-famous La Boulange bakery now with 20 locations in the Bay Area. It was an authentic French bakery experience with delicious croissants and a very enticing range of traditional pastries. Naturally, I was excited when I saw posters in the window at Starbucks announcing that La Boulange was coming soon. I knew it was the San Francisco La Boulange – I recognized the logo and sweet pink branding – and I was counting down the days to launch.

On the day of launch I was there. Waiting in line to order I had time to look over the branding. It is distinctively different from Starbucks’ own brand but integrates well into the overall experience. It feels French, higher-end and has foodie cred. I was happy to be seeing all the right cues. But when I got to the actual display case things started to unravel. This was not at all what I expected. Where were the French pastries? There was a croissant and a bland looking cheese pastry but none of my La Boulange favorites. And everything looked so small and sparsely arranged.

I became very confused about what to order and panicked because I hate holding up a line. To get out of there I quickly I asked for a banana bread; not French at all. Then, the experience took a turn for the worse. The very smiley Starbucks cashier asked me if I wanted it heated! I could not believe it. No French person would ever heat a fresh pastry. In my experience, heating a baked good is something you do when you’re trying to hide that it’s stale. I was so surprised that I asked him if he was sure and yes, he assured me that what they recommend. Fail!

Regardless, I have been back a handful of times to give Starbucks and La Boulange a few more chances, but I continue to be disappointed. I have come to the conclusion that this is NOT Starbucks doing La Boulange, BUT La Boulange doing Starbucks: “Frenchified” American baked goods. What I mean is that they are still doing scones, muffins and sweet breads, only smaller and more precious looking (and frankly, who wants that anyway?). If I am going to eat a scone or muffin, I want something that looks a little rustic, with grains, fruits and nuts exploding out of it. Maybe Starbucks would have done better with American craft baking as opposed to a French patisserie. I don’t know.

What I do know is that this brand initiative fails for me because it lacks cohesion. The actual experience is a complete disconnect from the marketing promise. Not wanting to be a voice of one, I asked some of my brand-savvy coworkers and food loving friends what they think. Their feedback boiled down to three main things:

1.       The marketing is getting attention: the promise of French style pastries and the traditional look and pink signage all spark interest and are generally liked.

2.       Some of the old assortment is sadly missed: such as the chocolate chip cookies and even the original croissants.

3.       The new product does not appeal: it is smaller, more expensive and doesn’t taste a whole lot better.

It might be that the only people really happy about the new pastry offering at Starbucks are the owners of the Bay Area Bread Group who made $100 million on this sale of La Boulange.

Nevertheless, I look forward to seeing how this initiative evolves as consumer feedback rolls in. With better baking capabilities, a commitment to quality ingredients, and some experimentation this could still become a win. In the same way that Starbucks fundamentally changed the way American’s drink coffee, it is re-shaping our country’s fast-food experience – not an easy feat!

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