Starbucks-Boulange Brand Damage

When Starbucks announced its June 2012 acquisition of San Francisco-based Bread, LLC and its La Boulange® bakery brand I thought, “nice move.”

As a customer of both Starbucks and La Boulange, I envisioned a well-deserved expansion of the French-themed bakery/restaurant into new markets under the guidance of Starbucks’ location wizards. Unfortunately, Starbucks seems to have had a different plan, clumsily attempting to sandwich the new brand into the Starbucks experience. As a loyal customer of both brands, I witnessed the brand damage first-hand.

Everyone knows Starbucks. It’s an American northwest brand, which introduced eclectic cafe-centric comfort snacks to middle America. Fewer people know La Boulange, a regional French-themed bakery/restaurant offering fresh baked goods, sandwiches and snacks, and espresso with a continental flair. On paper, the two brands appear similar, but the customer experiences are distinct. Merging the two brands smacks of expedience over customer-focus.

So what happened? Shortly after the acquisition, Starbucks began to roll out new food items branded “La Boulange” in a few Starbucks locations. Among those food items were pastries presented in small shapes, including croissant squares and coffee cake briquettes. I puzzled over the move. Why would Starbucks introduce a French-themed brand into its distinctly American experience? Why would those La Boulange-branded items be sub-standard (not even equivalent to those served in actual La Boulange shops)? Why would the server insist on heating the Boulange items, signaling a lack of freshness while slowing the line?

In Boulange, I can have a fresh blueberry pound cake slice, fresh French bread, a fresh mini-BLT or fresh smoked salmon sandwich on mini French bread. In Starbucks, I can have an overwrought Boulange breakfast sandwich (not as good as its Starbucks precursor), an industrial Boulange croissant square or an overpriced Boulange sandwich. My Starbucks experience suffers, and my estimation of La Boulange is lowered. As a Starbucks and Boulange customer, I see the damage to both brands.

What was Starbucks’ mistake? I can only surmise that senior executives rationalized the acquisition of a coveted brand based on internal pressures, without adequate customer focus. I don’t believe a conscientious brand manager would make such a mistake without a corporate mandate. The Starbucks/Boulange case study will make for interesting reading in future business-school textbook.