Starbucks Really Taps Into Your Emotional Needs

Brian James Rawson
November 6, 2023

Listen to the episode above. Read the transcript below.

Episode Transcript

Welcome to the Owl Street Studio podcast where we look at how marketing and design affect the unexpected areas of our lives. 

Today we’re doing another case study. We’re looking at how Starbucks tap into your emotional needs. 

What Are Your Needs?

But before we can dive in, we have to explain what your needs are in the first place. See, all of us have needs. In this sense, the word “need” means any resource you need to literally survive, and these “needs” can be broken down into two large categories. On one side is external needs. These are physical, tangible resources you need to survive. For example, food, shelter, water, and clothing are all external needs. And on the other side is internal needs. These are the emotional, intangible resources you need to survive. Needs in this category are things like happiness, social connection, and self-actualization. 

Business Only Sell Needs

And to see how your needs connect to Starbucks and marketing, we need to talk about what businesses sell. See, every business sells two things. It doesn’t matter if they make a product or provide a service or do a mix of both. Every business only sells two things. They sell an external need and an internal need. 

For example, Tide sells laundry detergent, which cares for and, you know, protects your clothes. Clothes are an external need. You need clothes to survive. Clothes provide you with warmth, shelter, protection, etc, etc. And, you know…, you don’t technically have to wash your clothes, but if you don’t, they’ll wear out faster and cause you to lose your external resource faster. So, said simply, Tide sells you an external need. They sell you clean clothes. 

“But that’s not all folks….!” Tide also sells an internal need. Clean clothes don’t just last longer and provide more protection. They also help you make friends, get a job, land a date, and more. For example, try passing a job interview if your clothes stink up the room, or try sitting down and making friends if everyone can smell you a mile away. So although you may not realize it or think about it or Tide may not advertise it or slap it on their label, Tide sells you an internal need. They sell social connection. And when we pan back like this, we can see that all businesses, like Tide, sell you two things: an external and an internal need. 

Now, being honest, most businesses don’t realize that they sell two needs. Because of that, most brands only focus on one, the external need. For instance, Tide doesn’t say, “Hey our soap helps you make friends!” Instead, they just focus on the external, surface level need. They say, “Hey our soap cleans better than the other guy!”

Emotional Needs Matter Most

But why should businesses care about both? Businesses should care because out of the two needs, external and internal, one is way more important, persuasive, and valuable, and can you guess which one? It’s internal needs. The more a brand focuses on internal, emotional needs the more valuable, memorable, and influential they become…. and now we can finally talk about Starbucks. 

Starbucks knows that they sell two needs, and, unlike Tide, they prioritize selling the internal need (but without neglecting the external one). For this to make sense, let’s think of the two needs in a slightly different way. We can think of the external needs as the basic, physical, surface level selling points. These are things like price, quality, quantity, physical characteristics, and more. In other words, it’s all the stuff you can see and feel from the outside. And we can think of the internal needs as the invisible, abstract, emotional selling points. It’s all the stuff you can’t easily touch, feel, count and measure. Said another way, external needs get you through the door, but it’s the internal ones that get you to stay and get you to come back. And we can see all of this in Starbucks. 

Emotional Needs and Starbucks 

Starbucks does highlight the external need. You need hydration, caffeine, dopamine, and energy to survive, and coffee gives you all of that. Now, Starbucks doesn’t phrase it like that. Instead, they sell the external need by saying, “We have the best quality coffee.” So if you want coffee, why walk through the door to Starbucks instead of to the gas station, Dunkin’ Doughnuts, or your own kitchen? Because Starbucks is “better quality” (air quotes) than all of those other places. 

So the external selling point of “quality” gets you through the door, but what makes you stay? And what makes you come back?…The internal need. You might tell yourself you go to Starbucks because they’re better than the other coffee shop, but really why you keep going back isn’t for the coffee. It’s for social connection. We all need to feel seen and recognized, to feel that we belong to a group and have a community and friends. And that feeling, that’s what Starbuck’s sells. 

At Starbucks, putting your name on the drink isn’t to help you find your order on the counter, it’s to make you feel recognized. The Starbucks app isn’t there to sell you coupons (although it does do that). It’s there to make you feel connected, remembered, and thought of. The app helps you customize your order, helps remember what you like and don’t like, recommends new things to you, and gives you individualized gifts on your birthday and special occasions. 

Your Relationship with Starbucks 

All of these little things add up to create a relationship between you and Starbucks. That’s not even including how Starbucks trains their employees to learn people’s names and orders and how they teach their baristas to build relationships with each customer (which they call “customer connections”). All of this to say, Starbucks goes out of their way to make their stores the place you meet a friend, have a first date, and host a one-on-one business meeting. They do everything they can to sell you social connection, not coffee. Coffee is just a means to an end. It’s the surface level camouflage they use to get you through the door so they can sell you the real thing, social connection. 

Now, there’s a strong correlation between the brands that prioritize selling external needs and the brands that we think of as cheap and commodities, just as there’s a strong link between the brands that highlight internal needs, like Starbucks, and the brands we think of as expensive, valuable, high-end, and luxury. We’ll unpack this more in our next episode, but for now, the next time you buy something, pay attention to what selling points they use. Does your laundry detergent focus on an external need or do they appeal to an internal need? Does your coffee only sell quality, or do they sell something else? 


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