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5 Genius Ways Starbucks Used Psychology to Become the King of Coffee

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Starbucks has created the biggest coffee brand in history, by repositioning the humble cup of joe into a premium product that introduced coffee culture to millions around the world. As former CEO Howard Schultz put it:

“Starbucks has a role and a meaningful relationship with people that is not only about the coffee.”

But how did they grow so big, so fast? It’s down to applications of behavioral science and psychology throughout their experience.

1. Irrational Value Assessment: The Starbucks Effect

We all know Starbucks is expensive. But charging 5 or 6 times the price of a McDonald’s coffee is actually a genius business move.

In economics, there’s something called Irrational Value Assessment that says people don’t value products objectively. Instead we figure out how much something should cost based on context cues and how they make us feel.

For example, in Professor Robert Cialdini’s classic book, Influence, he tells a story about a jeweller’s assistant who accidentally doubled the price of every piece of turquoise jewelry in his store.

Up to that point, the turquoise had been impossible to sell. After doubling the price, it sold out in a matter of days.


Because when people see a high-priced item, they automatically assume it’s of a higher quality and more valuable than something that’s cheap. Especially when those two things are in direct competition.

That’s what Starbucks did for coffee. They charged more for what used to be cheap and dressed it in a premium customer experience, with nice tables, good music, and friendly baristas.

That pricing impact has been so huge, researchers have dubbed it the “Starbucks Effect”. In 1990, only 3% of coffee was sold at a more expensive premium price, but by the year 2000 in the middle of the Starbucks craze, 40% of coffee was sold at a premium price.

Because Starbucks set the expectation that everyday coffee could be expensive, and their success transformed the market.

2. FOMO Keeps Customers Coming Back

Most people know what FOMO is — it’s the fear of missing out. People hate to lose. In fact, the psychological pain of losing is twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining something.

The scientific name for this is Loss Aversion, and Starbucks knows it’s incredibly powerful.

That’s why it spends so much time and money creating limited-edition drinks like the Unicorn Frappuccino, or drinks you can only get at certain times of the year like the Pumpkin Spice Latte.

Starbucks Red Cup

Source: Starbucks

Starbucks’ seasonal items are so loved that they’ve become cultural landmarks — like their festive cups that signal the start of the holiday season. When you start to see red Starbucks cups, a little bit of FOMO kicks in if you haven’t gotten one yet.

FOMO gets customers into the store and makes them feel like they’re part of something exclusive and special.

3. Friction: Starbucks Used Psychology to Create a Habit

Sure, caffeine is addictive — but the Starbucks experience is almost as addictive. Especially their app. It removes two of the biggest pains from getting coffee, waiting to pay and waiting to get your order.

Starbucks App 2021

Source: Starbucks

But with its “order ahead” feature, the Starbucks app lets customers skip both the payment and the coffee collection lines. It also saves customers’ favorite drinks, so it becomes simple for people to get into the habit of grabbing a cheeky Starbucks during their morning commute.

4. Cocktail Party Effect: Little Touches Make the Experience Feel Personal

They may not always get your name right, but when baristas write it on your cup, they create a more personalized experience.

And people love personalization.

Starbucks name on cup

Source: Adobe Stock

The Cocktail Party Effect says that our brains zoom in on relevant information, like our names. It’s little things like names on cups that sets Starbucks apart from a McDonald’s or a Dunkin’ Donuts — making you feel special helps create that premium-feeling experience.

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5. IKEA Effect: Starbucks Used Psychology to Make Customers Fall in Love

One of the smartest things Starbucks has done is encouraging people to customize their drinks — you can get a half-caff, extra ice, no whip, whatever you want, and they’ll gladly make it for you.

Psychology tells us that people love a product more when they co-create it — it’s something called the IKEA Effect. This effect got its name from a study where researchers observed how people bid on IKEA furniture in a fake auction.

The researchers split the participants into two groups — one was given a finished piece of furniture, and the other was asked to assemble a piece of furniture.

When participants were asked to bid on these items, the people who had built the IKEA furniture bid more for the same items because they had fallen a little in love with their own creations.

The Bottom Line

There’s no doubt that a large part of Starbucks’ revenue comes from applying these psychological principles to their customer experience. In fact, they’ve managed to open more than 30,000 successful stores.

If you want to apply these principles to your business, start by asking yourself:

  • Irrational Value Assessment: How do our prices reflect the environment and context in which customers make choices?
  • Managing Friction: Are there spots in our experience where removing friction — an effort that might dissuade customers from buying something or buying something more — might make a difference?
  • Cocktail Party Effect: Is there anywhere in our experience where a touch of personalization might help customers special?
  • IKEA Effect: Could co-creation help customers feel more involved in the product or purchase process?

 If you enjoyed this article, check out my podcast episode about Starbucks: 

About the author

Jen Clinehens, MS/MBA

Hi đź‘‹ I'm Jen Clinehens (MS, MBA) the founder and Managing Director of Choice Hacking.

I started Choice Hacking in 2021 to help marketers and entrepreneurs figure out what makes buyers tick, and elevate their work using behavioral science, marketing psychology, and AI.

If you want to learn more, check out links to my newsletter, podcast, YouTube channel and other free resources below 👇


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