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Experience in a cup: McCafe vs. Starbucks

450mcdonalds11_billboard1 After sampling McDonald's McCafe, I freely admit, the product is tremendous. I've had both lattes and cappuccinos. And, I like them. Easily an equal to what Starbucks is selling, slightly less brassy than indy coffee houses. The experience, however, undercuts the product for two reasons: competency and mixed-mission.

First McCafe visit: The counter person needed help to figure out how to ring it up. Then, went searching for someone who knew how to work the machine. (read: push the buttons) In the end, they couldn't deliver. I walked out with money in my pocket and no coffee in my hand.

Second visit: The McBarista approached the machine as if it were charged with static electricity. Not a real confidence booster for the customer. She ultimately asked someone to make sure she was doing it right. Points for being conscientious. However, both asked, "you don't want any flavor in it?" as if I were requesting a Big Mac without a bun. Nope. "I want a latte that tastes like coffee."  They shrugged and went to work vending it. Points off for making me feel stupid.

Third: Entering a store near my home, I was delighted to see a McCafe machine present. When trying to order one, I was told, "no one here has been trained  how to run it." That's twice I've been turned away. 

The casual user might not return at this point. But, I'm intrepid in my desire to drink in the experience.

This morning, I dropped my middle daughter at school and thought I'd stop on the way to work to get a McLatte. Rounding the corner into McDonald's, I found the line wrapped around the building. I looked over at the vacant indy coffee drive-up. Guess who won.

Therein lies the rub in a mixed-mission: are you burgers and shakes, or are you lattes and capuccinno? 

There is a way to make it work using strengths McDonald's is already known for.

Starbucks chief exec Howard Schultz asserts that people won't say "meet you at Dunkin Donuts." Poppycock. There's potential for a sort of retro hip to going somewhere other than Starbucks. Contrarians who made Starbucks hip may see fertile grounds of differentiation in swimming to the golden arches for coffee--if the experience is good. The experience is key because that's what Starbucks is really selling.

Delay due to a mixed mission might seem benign, but puts customers off--and they won't know why. During every visit, I stood in line behind people staring up at a menu that never changes trying to decide what to order.  I timed it once and spent three minutes in line and another three waiting for the drink. While Starbucks isn't fast, there's a purer sense of mission. McDonald's is asking me to change behavior and not making it easy. 

I agree with Schultz that price is not going to be the  game changer for the same reason consumers buy a Lexus ES. They gladly pay significantly more  than a similarly appointed Camry would cost--and they're the same car. Starbucks has a cachet. McDonald's has one too. But, they're not playing to it.

We all have deep roots of emotional attachment with the golden arches. Appealing to customers on a retro basis seems a better bet: espresso, the happy meal for adults.

The our-drink-is-cheaper only lends credence to Starbucks' premium position and cements McDonald's as the "cheap place." Attacking Starbucks positioning asks loyal customers to admit they've been had and should feel stupid for doing so. That approach didn't work so well for John McCain. Won't for McD's either.

People may be tight with their money these days, but I'm betting the espresso-drinking customer would rather buy fewer premium cups to save money than get more cheap ones to maintain volume of consumption. McDonald's coffee drinks are cheaper; it is a secondary benefit being played as a first pitch.

Fighting on price will not work; it assumes a commodity perception that does not exist. Coffee has become an affinity purchase. Commoditization flies in the face of why people flock to Starbucks, et. al. Leading with a commodity pitch also screams "me too." Find me a me too who's ever won.

A key point of vulnerability in the coffee biz is speed. Starbucks is slow. You can watch seasons change waiting in line. On the other hand,  quick service is a given at McDonald's; it's right up there with fries. So, what if speed of service were a reliable product benefit at McCafe? I know it's asking a lot, but there ought be a drink specialist on every shift. When a drink order comes in, they snap to and serve.

What if, when I make a coffee only order in the drive-thru, I'm directed to pull ahead to where my drink would be brought out instead of having to wait, knowing my coffee is probably sitting there getting cold, as I watch five child-laden SUV's get their Happy Meals, etc.

From the beginning, Schultz maintained Starbucks would not vend hot food. The smells and service delays would interfere with the purity of a coffee experience. If this is how they continue to brew the biz, McDonald's may prove him right.

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