Engaging Culture

Why Atmosphere Matters in Connecting with a Community

Douglas B. Sosnick, Matthew J. Dowd, and Ron Fournier relate their conversation with Starbucks founder Howard Shultz in their book,  Applebee’s America: How Successful Political, Business, and Religious Leaders Connect with the New American Culture, as he described how that company discovered the power of community:

“The desire for atmosphere and camaraderie was most intense among people in their twenties who had grown up with no safe place to hang out other than shopping malls,” Shultz told us in 2006.  As young adults, some found bars too noisy and threatening for companionship.  So they hung out in cars and coffee bars.  Other trends of the 1990s helped Starbucks, including the growing number of people who worked from home and used coffee shops as a second office.  It helped that the Internet was becoming a part of the culture at the same time that Schultz was making Starbucks part of it too.  Wireless access to the Internet helped make coffee shops a Third Place.  “We have evolved and taken advantage of changes in the way people work and how they live in their homes, and, most of all, the fact that people are very hungry for human contact,” Schultz told us.  “I think it’s a new phenomenon.  I think if you kind of get underneath the rise in technology and the way people use personal electronic devices, it has become a secular way in which people act and that has led to people’s desires to have some degree of human contact during the day, and Starbucks has definitely benefited from that.”

Notice how many areas Schultz reacted and connected to, because we was always aware of the changes in the culture.  He first recognized the need for place.  So he built a company that didn’t just sell a product, but created a safe and comfortable place where people found community.  He used architecture as the starting point of building the brand.

Second, he saw the rise in home based workers, so he made the shops a functional place to work.

Third, as he watched the rise in the Internet’s popularity, he made wireless access a priority.

Finally, he recognized the need in people’s lives for a “Third Place.”  That’s the place you want to be after home and work.  It’s the “Holy Grail” of many retailers, who want to capture your time beyond living and working.  Growing up in the South as a boy, my “Third Place” was church.  We had activities of all kinds throughout the week, because it was a real focal point for the community.  The church lost that position beginning in the sixties, but now, pastors are seeing the possibilities of reclaiming that spot in people’s lives.

Because Howard Schultz was aware of these changes happening in the culture, he responded with the Starbucks brand, and accommodated each of these needs, making the chain of coffee shops the most popular in the world.  We don’t have to be technology slaves, but we do need to see the changes happening in the culture, and recognize how we can respond with our brand.

And remember that branding extends even into the details of the building.  Starbucks selected round tables because studies indicated that a single person sitting at a square table makes them look and feel more alone.  They also discovered that round tables made the coffee shop flow more from a design point of view.  Because a sense of community is important for Starbucks, anything that made people feel alone and separated had to be eliminated or at least toned down to a minimum.

How well does your building and atmosphere impact your congregation, customers, or audience?

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One Comment

  1. I see a trend among the more professive and aggressive churches now to start becoming that “third place” again. It may be the only way to attract people back into the church without physically dragging them in.

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