Starbucks “Architect” Explains Brand Design

May 1, 2005


A seminal part of the Starbucks experience is the store itself, with the comfy furniture, funky décor and way cool music. Arthur Rubinfeld spent a decade with Starbucks Coffee Co. creating that experience, as the executive vice president responsible for planning and executing Starbucks’ retail brand design, positioning, real estate and store growth strategies. His oversight in building Starbuck’s Coffee into one of the world’s most recognizable brands and spearheading Starbucks expansion globally helped establish Starbucks as the standard-bearer in retail branding, concept growth, and quality customer service.

Now founder and CEO with Airvision, a consumer product branding consultancy based in Seattle, Rubinfeld recently published Built for Growth: Expanding Your Business Around the Corner or Across the Globe. --- Michael Krauss

How did you become architect of the Starbuck’s brand?

My background is in architecture and urban design. I practiced in SoHo in the ’70s and went to Park Avenue. I got a job working for Harry Helmsley constructing the Palace Hotel when I was 28 years old.

I learned architecture is a great hobby and a tough profession. You are not the decision-maker. I needed to learn more about construction. I needed to become that owner. Harry Helmsley taught me real estate development.

(Then I made) a lifestyle decision: I moved to California. San Francisco is the greatest combination of urbanity and livability in an urban setting. I started a real estate company. I would drive around looking at undervalued real estate. I found development deals. I built a shopping center. We built our firm into the second-largest retail real estate brokerage in the Bay area. It’s called Epsteen & Associates, run by Michael Epsteen. In 1991, our firm started opening Starbuck’s stores in California. I was an early investor in Starbucks.

Had you known Starbuck’s CEO Howard Schultz a long time by then?

Howard and I were neighbors in Greenwich Village in our early 20’s. Howard was selling (a) plastic container line (and) noticed higher-than-usual sales coming out of the Northwest from a company called Starbuck’s. He fell in love with the product.
Starbuck’s was selling whole bean coffees. Howard came back from a buying trip to Italy and convinced Starbuck’s three founders to test ‘coffee by the cup’ in a location in downtown Seattle. The test went well but the owners were purists. They wanted to stay with whole bean coffees and teas.

Howard started Il Giornale and got to three stores when the founders of Starbuck’s decided to sell. I was an early investor in Il Giornale with Howard.

So it’s 1992 and Howard has fewer than 100 stores, and …

I went up Seattle to explain to this small team of executives how they should structure their retail real estate. It wasn’t a job interview; I went up as a friend of Howard’s because I understand real estate, design and construction.

Howard said, ‘Would you be interested in coming up’ (to Seattle to take a job with the company). Frankly, I was established north of San Francisco. I said, ‘I don’t know, move to Seattle to sell coffee by the cup?’ Fortunately, Howard came back down (to discuss it with me) and I joined in early 1992.

We opened a store in the Pacific Heights neighborhood of San Francisco. With no advertising, over 300 people went in the first day. It was an ‘aha’ moment.

What did you do when you joined?

I put in place an in-house store design and build capability. We used in-house architects, construction people and real estate people. More than 550 people were in my group when I left 10 years later. We opened close to 4,000 stores.

I was able to drive design using my architecture experience but mostly it was my environmental psychology experience.
(For example,) I insisted on using round tables, because from a psychological standpoint you can sit at a round table alone and not feel lonely or isolated. We consistently challenged ourselves to be innovative with new designs. There are stories in the book about how we did the designs and just jumped ahead of the competition.

What’s Built for Growth all about?

Inspiration. It provides step-by-step methodologies to understand how to position a company (and) what to look for in the people: What are your core values? (It’s about) how important the first store is. It’s location. It’s architecture. It’s experience. A lot of techniques so you don’t stumble. Most retailers and start-ups stumble in their first six to eight locations. If you have one or two bad ones it’s difficult to make (that) up.

How can I learn to grow my own business?

The growth strategies that I implemented at Starbuck’s are in the book. For example, you need to understand if you do not have a social, political or environmental connection with the customer, you’re lost.


 ©2005 Marion Consulting Partners