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Is Your Business A Cup of Coffee or A Coffee Shop?

For a long time, I thought businesses blithely threw around the word “experience” like college students throw around the word “epic.”  (Sorry kids, eating nachos on your roof at 2am is not actually “epic”).  It sounded like one of those meaningless, over-buzzed tagline fillers.  However, the coffee shop industry has proven me wrong.  Taking advantage of a useful bit of psychology, Starbucks and its ilk have successfully created a veritable cultural institution out of little more than beans.  And we should pay attention.  Here’s their big secret:

People are happier when purchasing experiences than when purchasing “things.”  

We want clients to be happy.  And people are happier when they have recently bought an experience (such as a concert, a ski trip) than when they have bought a thing (a watch, a necklace).  In fact, people are happier just thinking about purchasing experiences.  Starbucks runs a ten billion dollar company on this piece of information.  Anyone can brew a cup of coffee or steam some milk at home.  But you can’t get a coffee shop at home – that music-playing, windows-and-table-filled haven that attracts students and bankers and poets alike.  Starbucks doesn’t sell coffee, they sell the coffee shop experience.

These days, anyone can snap a photograph even more easily than they can brew a cup of coffee.  We cannot be in the business of selling photographs, no matter how good they are.  Photographs are cups of coffee – created, consumed, forgotten.  Without an experience surrounding their creation, we will be too.

What exactly is an experience, and how do you create one?  In short, the experience is everything besides the actual photographs, and it’s intertwined with how you make people feel.  This might include:

-An in-person meeting, complete with treats, to discuss what they would like to do with their time with you.  This helps them feel understood and listened to – two things uncommon in our culture.

-A luxurious, unhurried, 2-hour photo session that reflects what they wanted.  Again, understood and listened to. 

Thoughtful information-sharing to help them get the most out of the experience – such as how-tos of selecting wardrobe, planning a wedding day to maximize the quality of photographs taken, handling energetic children, etc.  The sharing of your expertise makes them feel like an expert, too – and they feel more confident in their experience.

But beyond making clients happier –

The experience justifies the price.  Shelling out $7 for a cup of coffee does not feel as ridiculous when you get to enjoy it in a sumptuous chair, chatting with a friend near a light-filled window.  Nor is paying $50 for a 5×7 print when the creation of that image was a delightful, well-attended, luxurious glide from start to finish.

Yes, Starbucks actually charges $7 because they have to pay for electricity, supplies, taxes, insurance, aprons, and employees, but we don’t really care about all that when we’re buying a thing.  We just want a cheap cup of joe.  But the experience of a coffee shop helps us mentally justify – and even ignore – the expense of the coffee.

What do your clients really receive from you?  We talk a lot about “style” and “artistic approach” in this industry, and of course these things are important.  But the truth is that there are millions of people who don’t appreciate the artistic differences between photographers, just like there are millions of people who don’t appreciate the artisinal differences between types of coffee beans and methods of brewing.

And we can talk until we’re blue in the face about how much our gear costs, how expensive it is to be a photographer – but clients frankly don’t care about our overhead when they are looking at their budget and our price list.  But if we have made them feel something, whether it be more confident, educated, lavished upon, whatever – those intangibles add to our value.  Those are things they cannot get from their own iPhone or friend down the street who just bought a dSLR.

Coffee and coffee shops.  Which are you?





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  1. Andrew Allen on November 9, 2011 at 12:31 am

    Epic post 😉 Seriously though, if you love coffee, this makes three things we have in common. I’m an espresso (mocha) addict. You make some good points about providing a full photographer-subject experience as opposed to just “taking a picture”.

    • Jenika on November 9, 2011 at 12:37 am

      Ahh, I’m a hot chocolate aficionado rather than a coffee drinker – but you will often find me in coffee shops with my cup of hot chocolate or steamed milk with a shot of vanilla! 🙂

      Thanks so much for your comment.

  2. Jackie S on December 12, 2011 at 4:42 am

    Wow, I am that person with the dslr and just take the pictures. I got into this business without the marketing and business aspect. Now, I have to take 10 step back and revisit and revise everything.

    This is a great post and I really enjoy your articles.

    It makes so much sense to give the customer/client an experience they never had and watch them tell everyone about it.

  3. Angela Maciel on November 6, 2017 at 6:31 pm

    Is Your Business A Cup of Coffee or A Coffee Shop?

    mine is neither but one thing is for sure… my kitchen and my house is full of coffee stuff… I’m a fanatic

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