Fearlessly Frank’s Ultimate Nemesis – Starbucks Versus ‘Tall White’

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This week on the Fearlessly Frank blog we’re exploring our new business tool: Ultimate Nemesis.

As the name suggests, the Ultimate Nemesis programme is an intensive business bootcamp that aims to kickstart your company’s innovation efforts by posing a simple – but vital – question. Who is your biggest enemy, your number-one competitor?

It goes without saying that, as a business, it pays to know your enemy. But in this world of disruptors and start-ups, the business that has the power to destroy you might not exist yet. As the high street found out when Amazon came onto the scene, your competitors might not come from traditional channels – you might not be expecting them at all. They might be using new tech or innovative business models to solve needs that you didn’t even know your customers had yet. They can approach by stealth and, worryingly, they can prove absolutely devastating to your business model.

That’s why innovation and imaginative, adaptive thinking are vital for any modern business. You need to be prepared for threats that don’t even exist yet. Ultimate Nemesis is about picturing what that enemy might look like, and creating a plan to make sure you are always one step ahead – always the disruptor, never the disrupted.

As an example, let’s take a look at Starbucks – a huge and seemingly unsinkable business whose main competition currently comes from other high-street coffee chains, like Costa or Café Nero. It is perfectly possible for Starbucks to anticipate what either of those chains will do next – but what if a completely left-field business were to emerge and completely change the way customers relate to their daily latte provider? Even big businesses can’t afford to be complacent – “unsinkable” is how they described the Titanic, and we all know how that ended (spoiler alert: not well).

The Ultimate Nemesis of a business like Starbucks might pose some kind of challenge to the very rudiments of the business. It might exploit the brand’s inherent weaknesses and make its strengths obsolete. For instance, we already know that Starbucks is as much a real-estate business as it is a coffee shop; most big coffee chains want to cover as much space as possible in their target areas because, ultimately, nobody is overly brand loyal when it comes to their morning beverage. They might prefer Starbucks to Costa, or vice versa, but if one is significantly closer, convenience will win out. Big, expensive purchases such as cars, houses, or luxury fashion items might place more stock on brand loyalty, but a flat white is cheap, disposable, and quick – so the best strategy is to always be the closest available brand. Only in a few specific arenas – like airports or stations – do coffee chains actually compete with one another on product-quality alone, so it makes little sense to focus on making the best coffee – it pays to focus instead on making the most.

That’s where our challenger comes in. Let’s imagine a coffee brand that has managed to achieve total ubiquity, without buying up entire high-streets. How might it do this? We all remember Amazon’s plans to implement delivery drones, though eventually this plan was put on the back-burner due to its impracticality. And yes, perhaps it is impractical to rely on drone technology to deliver consumer goods of varying weight at low altitude across miles and miles of lonely rural land or crowded cities – but coffee is eminently transportable, and what if our challenger – let’s call it Tall White – was able to use this to its advantage? Tall White would only need to cover an area of about one square mile – or in other words, the City of London. The difference is, its drones would be going up – to offices and desks hundreds of stories in the air.

Unlike Starbucks, Tall White has no physical locations, but simply sends you a steaming hot cup of joe via air-delivery within five minutes of ordering through a bespoke app. Suddenly, the act of buying up acres of premium real estate starts to look cumbersome and expensive compared to a much leaner method of giving you your habitual caffeine injection.

It’s the ultimate convenience – rather than taking the elevator fifteen stories down to street level, you can have your coffee delivered while you work, and all you need to do is reach out of the window to collect it. Let’s say the CAA has just cleared Tall White for takeoff as part of a tech-innovation platform, so there’s no legal fine-print to worry about – and, once cleared, this model could hockey-stick overnight, placing Starbucks in decidedly hot water.

Of course, Starbucks would still have at least one notable advantage – coffee shops are a physical “third space” in which customers can socialise, relax, and work, which Tall White cannot provide.

Yet.

If their business model involves coffee-making without fixed locations, how would Tall White address this particular customer need?

Imagine if Tall White was also the world’s first mobile coffee-shop. Imagine if small minibuses were, in partnership with Uber or Citymapper, converted into roaming coffee-wagons, with self-service machines, comfortable seating, coach-style toilets, Wi-Fi and plug sockets in the back? Customers would call a Tall White-mobile the way they call an Uber, then sit in the back and hold meetings, or simply browse the internet, while enjoying their much-needed fix. If they need to be somewhere, the coffee-station can head in that direction; if they just need somewhere to dip into, the wagon sits stationary in a quiet street or completes a small lap of the neighbourhood. Because everything is electric and driverless, operational costs are low, and the environmental impact is not considerably higher than a power-guzzling high-street outlet.

People are adaptable. If Tall White got it right, they could provide constant, hyper-convenient third spaces that aren’t burdened by stranglingly-high commercial rents, while zooming coffee to desks everywhere in the City – and, eventually, beyond.

At the moment, Tall White’s mobile coffee-wagons are not something Starbucks have to worry about. But the question companies like Starbucks need to be asking themselves is: when do they have to start worrying? The real Ultimate Nemesis, the one that has the power to kill their business, will likely be something even more everyday and less fantastical, and they need to be constantly on the lookout for it. Because one day, Tall White – or something even more devastating – will become reality.

After all, driverless cars and delivery drones, though they may still be a way off, are not the stuff of fantasy anymore. No high street retailer could possibly have imagined, before Amazon took off, how quickly their entire consumer base would be buying the items quickly and cheaply online, on a small device carried constantly on their pockets – that they could rent a flat and fill it with furniture and electricals while on the 242, at their desks, or without stepping outside at all. And they definitely would not have seen automated transportation as a viable possibility – but suddenly these science-fiction-sounding solutions are potentially only years, not decades, away. It’s a sobering thought, even for big, stable businesses.

We’re not saying Starbucks needs to literally prepare for a fleet of Gaggia-armed Ford Transits to roll up outside Chancery Lane and steal their lunchtime crowd, but they do need to be in a state of constant ninja-like readiness for the next consumer shake-up, and to prepare for the possibility that a competitor businesses they might overlook or disregard could become a very real, viable prospect overnight. Mobile technology, cryptocurrency, hyper-connectivity, open banking, 3D printing – there are shake-ups happening constantly, and small seismic shocks mean rogue waves will soon be on their way.

The only way to truly prepare for the unexpected, then, is to tap into the same mindset as the hungry young start-ups looking to take on the world with powerful new tech and ideas pulled from the uncharted possibilities of modern life. They need to not just protect themselves from Tall White, but ask themselves: how do we BE Tall White?

That’s what our Ultimate Nemesis bootcamp aims to solve, by combining research and insight with imagination and innovation, so that when Tall White’s coffee-mobiles finally hit the market, Starbucks is already halfway down the street, in a driverless Apache helicopter that 3D-prints pumpkin spice lattes on tap.