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Sometimes when a well-established company decides to take a new direction, the change is so natural that you almost can remember what it was like before. Sometimes, however, the change can feel disjointed, and loyal customers almost feel offended by the departure. The difference between these two scenarios? Good brand management.

When I first read a case study about Starbucks’ decision to test beer, wine, and dinner foods in certain markets, I was skeptical…for about 2 minutes. But once I took a beat to think about the Starbucks brand – instead of its product offerings – I was sold. That was sometime last year, so I was really happy to hear the announcement recently that they’ve decided to release Starbucks Evenings in several wider metro areas.

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Why does this new direction feel natural? Because of how the Starbucks brand figures into most of their customers’ daily lives. Yes, Starbucks sells coffee and coffee-related accouterments. But what Starbucks really offers is a specific experience. Now, you might argue that there’s some variation by time of day or location of the store, but by and large the brand is committed to serving a high quality product in a reasonable amount of time in a pleasant atmosphere where people want to linger. And while the first part might bring people in the door, that last part (the lingering) is what the brand is really about.

Sure, I’ve run into one of their locations on my way to work to grab a coffee and run right back out the door. But the space that Starbucks really occupies in my life (and millions of others) is a place to go and just…be. Need to keep working but you’re getting cabin fever? Starbucks. Looking for a convenient spot to meet up with classmates and work on a group project? Starbucks. Meeting a blind date for the first time and a full-on dinner is too much pressure? Definitely Starbucks.

When you look at it from that perspective, it almost seems odd that they have not always served wine and beer. But again, that’s because Starbucks has meticulously (almost obsessively) managed the evolution of their brand over time. From the products to the buildings to the employees themselves (or partners, as the company calls them), every aspect is carefully thought out with one eye ever on the maintenance of the Starbucks brand.

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If this was not the case, then we’d simply be talking about a place you go to pick up your morning coffee in a Styrofoam cup suddenly trying to get you to come back in and order a glass of wine with a friend later that night. No offense to Dunkin’ Donuts, but if someone behind that counter offered me a cheese plate and nice cabernet I would probably just walk right back out. Not because I don’t like Dunkin’ Donuts, but that’s just not the purpose it serves in my life.

So how can you take what we have talked about here today and apply it to your small business? Remember to take the long view when you think about your own company. In order for Starbucks to be able to offer evening service now, they had to start by building a brand over time that could make the logical transition. While it’s hard not to live one day to the next when you’re running a small business, it’s crucial to your future growth that you think about how you might want to evolve over time and start putting the building blocks in place now.

About the Author: Sarah Matista is the resident blogger at Webs, where she also manages marketing for Pagemodo – a suite of social media tools. Loves marketing, small businesses, and whales. Get more from Sarah on the Webs Blog and Google+.

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