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Yes, I Can Walk in These

When a Cup of Coffee Can Change a Life

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Sometimes, when we work each day immersed in the details of global brand strategies, it’s easy to forget that a brand must move one person at a time. We forget that often the most important message a company can communicate is through its employees. These are a brand’s best ambassadors and, sometimes, they have the power to change a life as they did in the case for one man I know: my dad.

My father is an 86-year old Holocaust survivor who, for his age, is in great health and even better spirit. While as a child he experienced the unimaginable as an Auschwitz prisoner for four years [read Richard Edelman’s blog post about visiting Auschwitz with my dad and me], today he calls each Sunday to tell me how wonderful life is. This is not too surprising for an immigrant who woke each day of my childhood, clapping his hands together and thanking g-d that he lives in America. He still does that to this day.

It wasn’t always like that though. About a year ago, he was quite unhealthy… and even unhappy.

After a dangerous bout with pneumonia that severely weakened him and left him in need of additional care living in another city, we were left with little choice but to put him in a top-rate assisted living facility. The place had an outstanding reputation, superb staff and lots of other people his age.

I was elated. Finally, I could stop worrying about his daily well-being. Not only could the staff ensure he was taking the right array of medications, but they would be close at hand should anything go wrong. Never again would I need to call the fire department to break into his home to make sure he was alright.

Yes, I was happy. More importantly, though, he was not. He complained about the food, about the “old age” of the other residents and, then, one day, he let it slip. There was no nearby Starbucks.

Apparently, entirely unbeknownst to me, my father revealed that each morning, he would walk to the Starbucks near his home. He then admitted that he missed that morning routine. It is worth noting that as complete coincidence would have it, Starbucks is a longtime Edelman client.

Ultimately, one month after moving him into that assisted living facility, I returned to move him out and back home. It was difficult and frustrating and left me worried that I would never, again, really know  he was okay at any given moment. Ultimately, we each returned to our routine which, for him, included a daily walk for coffee.

On my next visit, I suggested we grab coffee together. Much to my surprise, it wasn’t even a full Starbucks storefront, just a large, open kiosk in the middle of a rather impersonal mall food court. The metal chairs belong to the mall, as do the nearby signs of Chinese food and a mobile phone cart.

When we got to the counter, the woman took our order as I waited while my father went ahead to sit down. “I’m just waiting for the coffee,” I informed the barista as she looked at me rather quizzically.

“Oh, no,” she informed me. “We always bring Mr. Becker his coffee.”

And with those words, my eyes welled. These young strangers didn’t really know much about the man who stood before them, but it was clear they grew to adore him and treated him as if they would miss him if he were gone. Since he always wears long sleeves to cover the remnant tattooed number on his forearm, they likely have no idea that he is still haunted by the years of constant cold and hunger he experienced as a prisoner. But that doesn’t matter anymore. Today, he can buy all the hot coffee and muffins he desires.

In Forbes’ Three Steps For Transforming Employees Into Brand Ambassadors, we’re reminded that one of the most powerful brand assets a company has is the people. According to the 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer, employees rank higher in public trust than a firm’s CEO. A poor interaction with a “frontline” employee can instantaneously undo the result of any costly marketing spend.

As a PR executive, I knew this fact intuitively, but nothing is quite as impactful as seeing that power come to life. Today, whenever I visit him, we go to his Starbucks together. Last visit, one of the young baristas greeted him with a morning hug and the most perfect question: “Good morning, Mr. Becker. How are you today?”

I’m sharing this story as Thanksgiving approaches. As you can imagine, my father and I have so very much for which to be grateful. I am hopeful that this story reminds others of the healing power of tiny acts of kindness and how those tiny acts can help to build powerful loyalty.

For that, and for so much else, I am thankful.

Gail Becker is chair of Canada, Latin America and U.S. Western Region.

  • Wonderful post Gail. Thank you for reminding us that even the small gesture counts. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving Day!

    • Gail Becker

      Thanks, Corina. Your words mean a lot. Here’s to all that we have to be thankful for!

  • Kate Schifferdecker

    I’m so happy to be part of the Sbux team and hear these touching stories. Thank you for sharing and for making my day brighter. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your father!

    • Gail Becker

      We have so much to be thankful for, Kate. Thanks for the kind words as always. Hope your Thanksgiving is wonderful too.

  • Carrol Hutchinson

    Dear Gail, I was so moved your “coffee” story. I am happy for your father in that he has these friendly people to greet him and treat him with the respect he deserves. Glad he can get his morning Starbucks!!! All the best to him and you – I had a very similar situation with my Mum and it is a lovely feeling to know other people love your parents and want the best for them. Happy Thanksgiving

    • Gail Becker

      Thank you for the lovely – and well-said – comments. Hope your Thanksgiving is wonderful.

  • Brenda Wrigley

    What a wonderful story! I plan to use it in my Marketing Communications class as we talk about brand loyalty and how the not-so-obvious things make all the difference.

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