Mychael Knight, Starbucks, and the art of subtle indoctrination

Over the weekend, Sandra sent out an email to all of us regarding Starbucks’ latest promotion: the Starbucks t-shirt. Billed as part of their “Customization Promotion,” this promotion features Mychael Knight (of Project Runway fame) at the forefront. Knight has created a variety of designs, which users can then mix and match, creating their own custom shirts.

According to their site, the goal is to “celebrate the individuality of our customers by honoring the creativity and freedom it takes, to make your beverage your very own.”


On looking over the site, a few things struck me. First off, this is a terrible promotion in terms of its appeal. I’m not sure who would want a shirt like this, let alone wear it. Brand affinity is one thing, but this seems like it just screams out that you’re a slave to a product (to say nothing of the fact that I think the shirts look bad).

However, in thinking about it more – I relized that this is a rather ingenious campaign, behind the scenes. And the real motives, in my opinion, have absolutely nothing to do with these designs, or with these shirts.

Consider the way in which Starbucks has ingrained their vocabulary for drink sizes onto the general consciousness (short, tall, grande, and venti in lieu of small, medium, large). They’re doing the same thing here with the process for ordering a drink.

My guess is that they’re trying to educate customers about “how” to order a drink, or at the very least what order they prefer to hear the component elements (size, then syrup, then milk type, etc).

At most quick purchase stores, you tend to name the thing you want first, occasionally using size as a prefix. For example, you would order a “small Coke” or “large fries.” When ordering at Starbucks, most people tend to order what they want (latte, mocha, etc) and then go about specifying all the additions/details.

But each person is going to order slightly differently. And as a result, time is lost in the translation. The Starbucks worker has to listen to everything, remember it, and then write out the order in a new combination according to the Starbucks process.

This campaign isn’t about “customization” or the “uniqueness” of the customer at all. In fact, the very opposite is happening: Starbucks wants all its customers to order in the same way.

This campaign is designed to bring in more revenue. But instead of improving service or quality, it’s all about improving the customer. This is the fascinating part to me – this is all about automating the people who walk in the door.

It’s about training the people who buy your product to be more efficient at buying your product.

The more folks who order according to Starbucks’ protocol, the faster their drinks can get made. This turns into more people getting served per hour, more transactions, and more money being made.

And guess what happened today?

On walking in, Sandra brings with her a small newspaper item: turns out, Mychael Knight will be appearing at the Starbucks at the Merchandise Mart. The one downstairs from us. What are the odds of that?

So. Of course. I have to bring my camera and go check things out.

View from the top floor, looking down. This is about 10 minutes before things are scheduled to begin.

By the time I’m downstairs, a bigger line has formed. Lots of folks lined up along the walls, just waiting.

More educational posters, teaching people how to order.

Runway setup. I guess at this point I should mention that I don’t really know Project Runway all that much, other than it’s some show that has gained a fair following. And I don’t really know much about Mychael Knight either, other than the fact that he has some unfortunate background music on his website.

On site, there were a ton of photographers present. People in the crowd were snapping pics a lot, but there were a few guys who had some pro gear on them. Also, they had a small camera crew going around interviewing folks in line.

Starbucks employees with various shirts on, waiting to walk on the “runway.”

Mychael Knight introduces the shirts, and the models who will be showing them off.

Honestly, the whole thing seemed really contrived and lame. Most folks were there, I’m guessing, to meet Mychael and to get him to sign stuff. Prior to him taking the stage, one of the Starbucks workers said that “Mr. Knight will sign anything that has a Starbucks logo on it.”

I’m guessing he’s a nice enough guy, and liked by a good number of folks. Otherwise, Starbucks wouldn’t have chosen him to represent them in so public a manner. But the entire “event” today came off as one big Starbucks lovefest, and he came across as a bit of a shill.

The audio quality (below) isn’t so hot. I’m not sure if you can really hear him talking or not, but from where I was… his energy was super low, and he sounded like he was just phoning it in.

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