Customer Experience. One obvious expression is the way a brand designs their “visitor center” and on a recent trip to the Pacific Northwest, I sampled two very different styles.

On my first trip to Seattle in more than 10 years, I knew I was going to visit the Starbucks Roastery. Despite my preference for independent coffee houses, I’d seen the social posts of gleaming copper vats and glass piping, and couldn’t miss it (I’m a recovering engineer, after all). But before I reached Seattle, I stumbled on the Tillamook Creamery visitor center in Oregon. The contrast between the two was notable. And I’ll tell you now – Tillamook won by a landslide.

TL;DR. Tillamook showed their love for all things cheese, and shared that passion. Starbucks eagerly took my money and left me with some instagram-worthy snaps…and a bad taste in my mouth.

 A Taste of Tillamook

A big, friendly cow greets you as you approach Tillamook’s new visitor center. That one image says a lot: They know where their product comes from; it’s beautifully staged, showing the quality and attention to detail they pride themselves on; and it promises a level of quirkiness that is delivered inside.

Tillamook Creamery Visitors Center

As you step through the doors, the first thing they want you to do is take the tour of the factory, including a well-curated history of the company focusing on the farmer-owned business model. It’s self-paced, shows the factory actually manufacturing product, and gives a good appreciation of what goes in to the product.

Next, you can grab lunch at the food counter downstairs. This is very on-brand – almost all of the menu choices showcase their cheese products; and the ice-cream choices are ridiculous. The soda fountain offers Stubborn products, a low-additive craft-style brand (albeit PepsiCo), while the coffee bar serves Five Rivers beans, from the independent roaster in their community. Everything about the food screams “fresh local ingredients”, and clearly demonstrates the quality of the Tillamook brand.

I’m not a fan of gift shops, but if you’re going to have one, make sure it’s full of high quality, reasonably priced, unusual items. Sure, there were Tillamook branded shirts and mugs, but they also had a range of outdoor goods and locally-produced food items to make the gift shop an actually pleasant experience.

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Here’s the bottom line. We dropped in at the Creamery for a quick/quirky lunch break. I wouldn’t describe myself as a cheese fan. And yet, we spent 2 hours and close to $80 (lunch and gift shop) living the Tillamook experience, and came away as brand advocates. I’ve told multiple people about it since (including you!). Most brands would kill for that exposure.

The Starbucks Storefront

Before I start, yes I know Starbucks (as with all companies) exists to make money, and any claim to great coffee went out the window a long time ago. But even with a fairly jaded view of Starbucks, I was still surprised by the blatant money-grubbing at the much-lauded Starbucks Roastery experience in Seattle.

Starbucks Roastery, Seattle

I’ll admit, from a design perspective, the Roastery is gorgeous. If Instagram designed a coffee shop, this would be it. It’s all copper pipes, pneumatic tubes and various industrial-chic components. But here’s the thing. At no point did I encounter any attempt to educate me – whether on the coffee process, the source of beans, the taste profiles, the farmers….nothing. It was a full-on money-squeezing enterprise.

You walk in through a retail area. High-end (expensive) brewing, cocktail-making and general lifestyle merchandise, all branded with the “Reserve R” logo. I was about to buy a half-pound of a temptingly-named “Knob Creek Bourbon Whisky Barrel-Aged Guatemala” when I realized it was $40 (compared to $13 for a standard bean). Moving on……

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You can grab a map and decide which of the three magnificently designed bars to go to for your beverage (cocktails, coffee “experience” and the main coffee bar). Since I was short on time, I went to the main coffee bar, ordered a pour-over Ethiopian roast, and sat on an ergo-dynamic wooden counter stool to wait for it to be prepared.

That small cup of coffee cost me $6, but to be fair, it did take extra labor to make, and it was a good cup of coffee – much better than the usual Pike Place drip.

Look around you and it’s primarily tourists, and everyone is taking photos. So yes, it’s an experience. But beyond the gleaming copper, what that experience said to me was “Starbucks wants your money. As much of it as possible.” And they don’t really want you to think about the source or the quality. They don’t care how much you know about their products, processes or philosophy – which used to be one of the defining elements of the company. They just want you to love Starbucks for the shininess, and the social proof. And that’s a tough sell when there are a ton of independent roasters all vying for attention [Start with Seattle Works and Storyville coffee if you’re in town – both have great coffee and a great atmosphere]

Is it fair to make a judgement on an entire brand based on a quick tour of their showcase? Maybe not. But I do think the Customer Experience at that level has a lot to say about the overall brand identity.

And on that basis, Starbucks lose.

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