“I need my Starbucks." We have all either heard someone say this or have been guilty of using the phrase. Over the last 40 years, Starbucks has grown to become a lot more than just a small coffee shop in Seattle. With more than 17,000 stores in over 50 countries, Starbucks can be found virtually everywhere and has some of the most loyal customers in the coffee business.
Researchers use the term “brand marriage” to compare relationships between a consumer and a brand. As in a human relationship, there is usually a period of courtship and eventually a marriage.
So what happens when the honeymoon ends and you stop using a brand?
Fiona Sussan and Laurie Meamber, marketing professors at George Mason University’s School of Management, coined the term “brand divorce” to describe the end of a brand relationship in their article, “Introspecting the Spiritual Nature of a Brand Divorce” published in the Journal of Business Research. Along with Richard Hall, a recent graduate from Mason’s psychology doctoral program, Sussan and Meamber specifically took a look at the spiritual nature of a brand divorce. Their research challenges and extends prior work on brand relationships through the chronicle of Hall’s spiritual journey that resulted in the ending of the consumption of a major brand.
“The consumer had a transformational experience through spiritual practice; in this case, meditation. Through this practice, the consumer can end this brand marriage which is almost like an addiction to the brand. In this particular case, we used Starbucks coffee,” explains Sussan.
“In the study we used introspection, which stems from psychology,” says Meamber. “The idea is that a person reflects, sometimes documents through note taking or recording, on their experience and uses that as a projective technique to understand what happened throughout the experience as you analyze it."
Hall reflected and documented his journey beginning with his introduction to Starbucks. To him it was love at first sight. Sussan explains that the relationship was built on more than just the java. “Starbucks represents something more than just coffee. It’s the experience people have there. Otherwise they could have a coffee anywhere else. But the whole experience makes you feel you belong to some sort of community.” Hall eventually became married to the brand, dropping by Starbucks several times a week until he was going every day, and twice on some days.
Subsequent to this he began engaging in meditation as a spiritual practice. Hall had been working on his dissertation and was hoping that meditation would help him with his stress level, as well as improve his overall health. Meditation caused Hall to transcend into a more peaceful mindset. He had previously used his visits to Starbucks for the caffeine rush and as a form of social interaction, but meditation alleviated this need.
“As a direct consequence of practicing meditation, the lure of Starbucks and everything it stood for had simply dissolved like so many clouds,” explains Hall in his narrative. “Starbucks had nothing to offer me but noise, calories, and expense”.
Although he didn’t intend to divorce the brand, Hall’s new life style helped him realize he no longer had any attachment to Starbucks. After the realization, he began frequenting Starbucks less often and ultimately decided he no longer needed Starbucks at all. As is the case in relationships between people, the romance just began to fizzle. Though it had started as love at first sight, it ended with the standard “it’s not you, it’s me.”
Fiona Sussan joined the George Mason University's marketing faculty in August of 2005. Prior to her career in higher education, Sussan served as a consultant in international trade in China and Hong Kong. She began her career in industry as an investment banker in Tokyo and London. Sussan received her PhD in Marketing from City University of New York (CUNY), MBA from Baruch College, CUNY and baccalaureate degree at the International Christian University in Tokyo. Click here for full bio.
Laurie A. Meamber is an associate professor of marketing in the School of Management. She joined George Mason University in 1998 and currently teaches advertising management and consumer behavior. Meamber was a visiting scholar at Southern Denmark University, Odense and Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. She holds a PhD in Management from the University of California, Irvine, an MBA from the University of California, Riverside, and a BA in sociology/organization studies from the University of California, Davis. Click here for full bio.