Dennis Yu

Why Starbucks = Community

I’m at 38,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean on my way to Norway, having just finished “Onward” by Howard Schultz. It’s the story of Starbucks’ turnaround from early 2008 to late 2010—the founding CEO coming back to take the reins and revive what the brand is about. You should read it.


That’s what I used to call it—a symbol of American excess for overpriced burnt coffee. If I saw a bum drinking a Starbucks, I wouldn’t tip him, chiding him instead. I saw ordinary iced tea for $8 in a Starbucks in Singapore. Foolish.

Starbucks partners—are you reading this?

This $10 billion global infestation made $1.4 billion in net income across its 16,000 stores, blindly seeking growth. Warned not to, Schultz still threw a $50 million extravaganza in New Orleans just after Katrina, while laying off thousands at the same time.

Dunkin’ Donuts and Mcdonalds’ got into the overpriced coffee game, while Starbucks started selling their version of Egg McMuffins. After seeing Starbucks kiosks in grocery stores, I expected them to soon sell frozen pizza, ice cream, and instant coffee. I was right on two of these three.


But then I saw it was more than morning zombies feeding an addiction. When I left Yahoo!, Starbucks became my office— a place to meet business contacts and friends. If you’re not familiar with the concept of the “third place”, it’s not a silver medal, but where you can hang outside of work and home (the first two “places”). Starbucks wanted to be the hub of the community.

You’d gladly pay $7 for a coffee at a Parisian café because what you’re really getting is the entire experience, the beverage being your admission ticket. It’s “where everybody knows your name”—and you can support ethically sourced Fair Trade coffee, healthcare for all, and even $500 cows for women in Rwanda.  Their LEED certifications for new stores are not a superficial marketing ploy, but core to their brand.


A brand is the sum of a user’s interactions with a company. It’s more than a TV tagline. It’s more than a premium you pay over the generic product, just to support overhead and advertising. It had to be authentic.

And that began with taking care of Starbucks “partners”, which all employees are called. The way you’re treated by a barista is fundamentally different than the typical fast food experience. That’s a competitive advantage—and it’s ultimately found in culture. Some investments:

  • Closing all stores one afternoon to provide training on how to properly pull shots– at the cost of millions in lost revenue
  • Replacing machines with ones 4 inches shorter so that baristas can make eye contact with customers.
  • Encouraging partners to take risks—who would have thought Black Sesame Green Tea Frappuccino would be a hit in China? Or that VIA and K-Cups (instant coffee) wouldn’t tarnish the brand?
  • Digital investments in upgraded POS,, a loyalty program, and a large social media presence—to show they listen and act


Going beyond cheesy motivational posters and putting this into action is what Howard Schultz did at the expense of short-term profitability. Selling stuffed animals at Christmas was their lowest point, in my opinion—a departure from core coffee excellence to blindly chasing comps. Maybe he would say it was the breakfast sandwiches—the burnt cheese overwhelming the coffee aromas, which he spent pages obsessing about.

Here are some values that will help all of us guide our businesses, in a way only founders and partners can embody:

  • Grow with discipline.
  • Balance intuition with rigor.
  • Innovate around the one.
  • Don’t embrace the status quo.
  • Find new ways to see.
  • Never expect a silver bullet.
  • Get your hands dirty.
  • Listen with empathy and overcommunicate with transparency.
  • Tell your story, refusing to let others define you.
  • Use authentic experiences to inspire.
  • Stick to your values, they are your foundation.
  • Hold people accountable, but give them the tools to succeed.
  • Make the tough choices; it’s how you execute that count.
  • Be decisive in times of crisis.
  • Be nimble.
  • Find the truth in trials and lessons in mistakes.
  • Be responsible for what you see, hear, and do.
  • Believe.

I’m eager to see what Starbucks does in the next stage of their journey. It’s 2013 and their social brand, while large, has several key opportunities to grow:

  • Activating word of mouth at scale— Starbucks has XXX reviews on Yelp, XXX reviews on Google, and XXX reviews on Yahoo. What if Starbucks ran campaigns that encouraged user participation, which then would drive more of these? Great SEO value, but reinforcing user loyalty is the real prize.
  • True personalization: in the same way you can personalize your Frappucino, can you imagine how amazing it would be if Starbucks could personalize their marketing campaigns? On Facebook, brands can merely bombard users with ads or run ads so relevant they are seen as recommendations from friends.
  • Owning the conversation: Whether it is around the winter red cups, summer fun, green energy initiatives, fair trade, or coffee—many people aren’t aware of Starbuck’s history. For example, did you know Starbucks has a goal to get to a million hours of annual community service? Or that Starbucks spent 20 years doing R&D on instant coffee, start from Don Valencia’s cell preservation science, which later was named VIA (ValencIA)?

I’d liken Howard Schultz to being the Herb Kelleher of the CPG industry– creating demand for something that never existed before and generating magic in making ordinary people feel extraordinary.

Dennis Yu

Dennis Yu

Dennis Yu is co-author of the #1 best selling book on Amazon in social media, The Definitive Guide to TikTok Ads. He has spent a billion dollars on Facebook ads across his agencies and agencies he advises. Mr. Yu is the "million jobs" guy-- on a mission to create one million jobs via hands-on social media training, partnering with universities and professional organizations. You can find him quoted in major publications and on television such as CNN, the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, NPR, and LA Times. Clients have included Nike, Red Bull, the Golden State Warriors, Ashley Furniture, Quiznos-- down to local service businesses like real estate agents and dentists. He's spoken at over 750 conferences in 20 countries, having flown over 6 million miles in the last 30 years to train up young adults and business owners. He speaks for free as long as the organization believes in the job-creation mission and covers business class travel. You can find him hiking tall mountains, eating chicken wings, and taking Kaqun oxygen baths-- likely in a city near you.
I'm a member of Blitzmetrics Academy and a friend of Dennis to boot. Not only is Dennis highly intelligent and full of great and creative ideas, he's also incredibly generous with both his knowledge and his time. Success couldn't come to a better guy. Thank you for all that you do for the world, Dennis! 🙏

Michael Pacheco


Thanks 🙏 for being shining light in this industry. Love what your building for works overseas too network for jobs so innovative. Dennis helped me navigate having bad experiences with marketing agencies and doing dollar a day marketing which has helped my personal brand tremendously. Highly recommend.

Eric Skeldon

Founder at Kingdom Broker

Working with Dennis has been a delightful experience. After meeting him in 2015 I got to collaborate with him on countless occasions. His understanding for state-of-the-art marketing, his implementation, and his leadership put him into the top 0.01% of marketers and mentors.

Jan Koch

Ihr kompetenter Partner für innovative KI-Strategien.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Dennis for my podcast in 2021 and since then we have maintained a friendship that grows with each interaction. I have seen Dennis' devotion to his friends and clients firsthand, and our conversations often result in us talking about how we can provide more value to the people around us. He is someone whom I can ask questions on a technical level, and look to on a personal level. If you have any hesitancy about hiring him, get over yourself and do it!

Isaac Mashman

Help scaling personal brands.

Geez, where do I start recommending Dennis? First, he is an absolutely brilliant marketer who understands where marketing is today and where it's going tomorrow. He also has an incredible passion for the International Worker community. The lessons he has taught me from his almost 20 years of experience hiring International Workers have been immense. Most importantly though. Dennis Yu is someone who wants the absolute best for you and is willing to tell you the truth. Dennis sat with me at a point in my business where I was floundering but did not want to admit it. He asked some very straight forward questions to get me to admit my issues, highlighted the issues, and then helped me create a roadmap to success.

Atiba de Souza

International Keynote Speaker | Video Content Superman | Superconnector |

Dennis, which I had the pleasure of working with is one of the most giving, honest and tell you as it is person I ever know. The knowledge this man has is remarkable and he just gives it out freely. He is not pretentious and always entertain anyone big or small in the industry always willing to help. If you ever get a golden opportunity to work with him or mentored by him say YES!. You will notr regret Dennis, which I had the pleasure of working with is one of the most giving, honest and tell you as it is person I ever know. The knowledge this man has is remarkable and he just gives it out freely. He is not pretentious and always entertain anyone big or small in the industry always willing to help. If you ever get a golden opportunity to work with him or mentored by him say YES!. You will not regret

Nixon Lee

The PR Whisperer

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