GRAY: Seattle, Starbucks and LSU Hoops

I had a chance to hear Howard Schultz, the guy who started Starbucks and owner of the Seattle Sonics, speak at a sports business conference recently in Seattle.


In a session called "Branding Room Only" Schultz, who has built one of the most respected and successful brands in the world, spent an hour talking with us informally about how he has transferred his experience building the Starbucks brand into developing a brand for the Seattle Sonics, which he owns and operates. 


Schultz's philosophy is to create a team culture that can be shared with fans around three ingredients:  emotion, trust and hope – not a bad goal for someone dealing with the NBA at a time when it has serious image problems and most of its owners losing money. 


As we enter college basketball's finest hour – March Madness – those who market college sports would be wise to take a close look at marketing trends the NBA is experiencing in the changing marketplace.  Just as the positive waves of pro sports trickle down to help college sports, like the Tiger Woods craze that increased interest in golf all the way down to the elementary school level; a negative trend in the NBA could trigger a similar waning in interest.  Right now, the trends from the top are a little scary. 


Schultz and his braintrust have spent a great deal of creativity and money determining specific elements of the Starbucks "culture", that is, the feelings, attitudes and responses they want customers to have when they enter their stores.   They hire above average IQ kids and teach them to remember your name and order and greet you with it when you walk in.  Since most of their customers are regulars, that keeps them coming back to pay $3.50 for something that costs less than a quarter at home. 


As I've watched the LSU Basketball teams this season, they appear to have something of an identity crisis when you try to describe their team culture.  One team has been too inconsistent to develop a clear culture, and the other is out of step with its promotions department. 


The Dale Brown era of basketball had a culture.  He asked you to come watch a team that had heart and hustle – then he would more often than not motivate them to play above their skills.  Nick Saban's football teams had a team culture that could be summed up in his favorite word:  consistency.  The man was so consistent, he even boasted that his weight hadn't changed a bit since college. 


Now that John Brady's team has picked up excitement on the play of some outstanding freshmen and sophomores, it's a great time to develop a strategy for marketing his team for the next few years so they draw the fans they deserve.   



Fans are turning out in droves to see Pokey Chatman's SEC champion Lady Tigers.

(Photo by Steve Franz)


With the Lady Tigers, it's time to move past the ill-timed, we'll-do-anything-to-get-you-to-pay-attention-to-us promotions with the same speed they have blown past opponents all season.  You have a coach who is garnering national recognition, a team that is playing lights out, a talent level that is without question national championship caliber, and yet fans are actually bringing signs to the game begging the in-game promotions to stop so the band can play at time-outs.


Howard Schultz called owning a professional sports team a public trust.  Working for college teams is even more of one.  Alumni and the public see college teams, especially those at state universities, as public property and feel that the coaches and support staff work for them.  In a way, they do.  Fans want the team to reflect the people and values of the community.   Lesson number one:  listen to your fans. 


LSU Football is the most successful brand in the LSU arsenal.  LSU Baseball has also developed a solid team culture and successful brand, thanks to the strong influence of Skip Bertman.  LSU Gymnastics has its own team culture, created and nurtured by coach D-D Breaux, who understands exactly how she wants fans to feel from the minute they walk into the arena.  Now that her team is ranked No. 1, hopefully 28 years of building her own brand will pay off in attendance. 


LSU Basketball needs a brand that resonates with fans.  Whether you follow the men or the women, when you say "LSU Basketball", it should trigger a response.  You should feel something special. 


It's time to take a lesson from Starbucks and study the team culture of both basketball teams to determine how to pack the PMAC for these two teams for the 2005-2006 season.  Both teams should have exciting seasons again and deserve the fan support to match. 


Schultz says part of the Starbucks culture is having that smiling face greet you with, "Grande latte, double pump for you this morning?"  Ahhhhh….. that feeling. 


Maybe next time you walk in during pre-game warm-ups, Big Baby will look over and say, "You want a double-double tonight?  My pleasure."


Now that's a brand I could buy into. 




Rannah Gray is a featured columnist in Tiger Rag Magazine. She can be reached by e-mail at

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