– Susan Hopp and Karl Schweikart, 45 Degrees/Minneapolis

With all the brouhaha in the news lately, let’s just touch the tip of the iceberg with a few observations about branding.

First of all, let me remind you that branding is all about managing customers’ expectations, building brand awareness and enhancing relationships to increase loyalty with people – human beings who care. At a glance it looks like there is no one managing it at Caribou. Or that no one cares.

People go to Caribou Coffee because of the quality, location and because of how they FEEL when they go there. I’ve experienced a welcoming, relaxed atmosphere with a fireplace, and friendly, attentive baristas.

Caribou, founded in 1992 in Minnesota, was sold for $340 million in December 2012 to a German private equity group Joh.A.Benckiser Group, which also owns California-founded Peet’s Coffee & Tea. As of 2009, Caribou employed more than 6,000 people and had revenue of $262 million.

Last Monday, it issued a statement that Caribou planned to close 80 under-performing stores on Sunday, April 14 and will be converting 88 locations to Peet’s shops over the next 12 to 18 months. They will continue to operate 468 locations in 8 states, including Minnesota, and 10 international markets.

The stores closed. And that is that. Thank you for your support.

Whoa, their corporate Facebook page went crazy. 1000s of posts and not many happy campers among them. My understanding is that Caribou scraped off a lot of the posts but there were still 1656+ last time I checked. Caribou lovers and haters. Peet’s lovers and haters. Starbuck’s mostly haters. Branding is about emotion – and that’s what is showing up here. Sadly Caribou corporate is not helping with reassuring posts, and facts are hard to come by.

Now, back to managing expectations.

Giving the stores and employees themselves only a nine-day warning, the manner in which this was handled was shocking. Loyal customers feel mistreated and unimportant (and angry and sad), and one can only guess how the employees feel. The corporate lack of damage control leaves me wondering what more do we not know.

I don’t have the answers but I do have questions:

  • How has Caribou’s brand changed with this change of ownership? Especially to a foreign conglomerate.
  • Why should customers still have faith and loyalty and trust? Does Caribou even care? Why are they not managing their brand?
  • Is our local rustic-themed Caribou Coffee now just a commodity that can easily be exchanged for another, i.e., Peet’s?
  • We Minnesotans tend to be fiercely loyal to our own – and proud of it. How will our relationship with Caribou change here in Minnesota?

“Life is (indeed) short.”

BTW, here’s a well-researched report by Carol Tice at Forbes.