This article was originally published by Inc. on May 24, 2017.

Dunkin’ and Starbucks dominate the coffee scene with two very different approaches that go beyond selling just caffeine and carbs.


We’ve been writing about and working with the subject of service design for so long now, we occasionally forget that people don’t always know exactly what we’re talking about when we first bring up the subject. Here’s the working definition we’ve come up with: Service design is what you do so that your customers get the experience you want them to have–every time. It involves reimagining, re-creating, and rethinking the execution of every stage and aspect of customer and company interaction, regardless of what is being sold and regardless of whether a transaction actually occurs, to satisfy that customer and advance your strategic goals.

Finally we came up with a great shortcut using two very different, very successful service designs that everyone is familiar with: Starbucks vs. Dunkin’ Donuts. Both are successful businesses, both are well-known brands, each is instantly recognizable from its logos, and each has its fierce fans. (It has yet to happen that when we ask a room full of people who prefers one vs. the other that we find a coffee person who doesn’t have a strong preference.)

It’s Not the Coffee

It gets interesting when we ask people why they prefer one vs. the other. The answer rarely has to do with the coffee itself but with the experience. This goes beyond Clay Christensen’s idea of thinking about products and services in terms of what “job” customers are “hiring” them for. Dunkin’ devotees tend to want to grab and go; they appreciate the little touches like munchkins being delivered in cups emblazoned with energetic, almost-neon colors that fit into a car’s cup holder. Dunkin’ has carefully crafted a minimum-fuss menu that can be prepared (and even customized) fast.

Starbucks stalwarts love the soothing lighting, the fact that they can stay (and stay and stay), taking founder Howard Schultz’s notion of Starbucks being your “third place” (after work and home) to heart, and the hand-crafted coffee concoctions whose combinations purportedly number more than 80,000.

They both sell caffeine and carbs, but more than that, they are each selling a very different experience. Now you might argue that each has taken some pages from the other’s book. Starbucks’ app lets you order your coffee so you can just grab and go; Dunkin’ has some pretty fancy coffee combos of its own and the in-store video menu is tantalizing enough that one (well, at least one of us) could imagine hanging out and watching it for a while.

Designing the Experience

But to think that these moves means that either company is distorting its brand or abandoning its core strategy is to miss the point of service design. It’s the experience as a whole, and how that experience makes a customer feel.

Even if you pre-order your Starbucks iced-carmel macchiato on the app, and take it to go, we’re going to bet that you still felt like you were in Starbucks, thanks to the lighting, the chairs, the fixtures, the music, the tenor of the crowd you wend your way through. Similarly, a fancier-than-normal hot drink from Dunkin’ still gives you the brisk sense of efficiency that has made “America Runs on Dunkin’ ” such a powerful slogan.

Think beyond merely the product you are selling and instead think about the experience you are creating and how that plays into your strategy and brand.

© Thomas A. Stewart and Patricia O’Connell

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