It probably won’t make me many friends in Seattle, but as a card carrying Starbucks addict, I am going to go ahead and call out the Kings of Caffeine. In the spirit of full disclosure, I am also a card carrying digital signage evangelist and solution provider, but I think that is clear from the blog site. So here we go: it is time for Starbucks to drop their stance that digital displays would be out of place in their ubiquitous and delightfully aromatic locations. The chalkboards are cute, and it does amaze me that every location seems to have someone with the ability to draw a caramel macchiato that looks exactly like the one across town. But let’s be honest. The average Starbucks has become a maze of hand drawn signs, computer printed announcements, and corporate-mandated posters and banners. From a marketing perspective, it is an absolute minefield of missed opportunities. Here is a picture showing a glimpse of the messaging mess at the cream and sugar counter at my local store.

Not in the frame were the huge basket urging customers to contribute food to a local soup kitchen, a promotion on coffee beans, several pieces pushing smoothies, special deals on discontinued espresso makers and much, much more. More than I can process before that Grande Bold hits my brain.

Let’s take a look at the marketing messages that are wafting through the air at a typical Starbucks:

1. Buy the new breakfast foods with a special combo deal
2. Try a Vivanno smoothie. (Not sure if this one has caught on yet)
3. Buy beans
4. Buy a mug or coffee maker
5. Donate to our troops or homeless people
6. Starbucks is green
7. Starbucks believes in fair trade and ethical treatment of growers
8. Starbucks has eliminated artificial ingredients in the prepared foods
9. Buy the music you are listening to
10. Grab the free iTunes download of the week
11. Get a Starbucks gold card
12. Get a Starbucks credit card
13. Think about a lunch sandwich
14. Come back after 2 PM for an afternoon pick-me-up
15. Enjoy the WiFi
16. We are part of the community
17. We sell really good coffee

There is a lot to impart to the folks as they wait to order, receive and doctor up their drinks. Starbucks relies upon a mixture of printed collateral, handmade signs, chalkboard announcements and expensive posters to get some of these messages across. They apparently hope to impart some messages subliminally. Regardless of what they may believe, while that approach may reinforce a casual, non-threatening feel, it does not take advantage of the multiple marketing opportunities presented by every customer visit. And it gets messy.

With just a single digital screen in the average location, Starbucks could clean up most of the clutter and deliver a consistent, updated and location-specific set of marketing messages that address every item on the list above, and 17 more that I probably missed. They would not have to (or ever want to) make it an ad-based network, as they are all about branding and experience. That is a huge positive. I do not claim to be a content expert, but it would be easy for Starbucks to come up with an appropriate and superior content strategy that differentiates it from Danoo, Ripple and other digital signage operators that have played in the coffeehouse field. They could easily reset the bar.

Think about how they could market the music more effectively. Think about the possibility of using a zone or a full screen segment in the loop to engage customers who have a Starbucks app on their cell phone. Imagine getting someone like me to consider a Vivanno or some Perfect Oatmeal. Picture a description of today’s brews scrolling along the bottom. Think about the potential to reinforce the Starbucks brand and experience with great video content (no sound required). I once actually saw a digital display in a New York location, but I could not tell if that was a test or a random event. Maybe Starbucks is testing something now, or has tested digital signage in the past. If those tests failed, they should take another look and engage smarter consultants and partners. I haven’t seen a more obvious case for using digital signage to advance a business strategy.

The time is now. The need and opportunity to drive sales increases is readily apparent. The technology works. The bandwidth is there. The ROI is easily measurable with a simple and inexpensive test. Customers might actually appreciate it. And call me crazy, but I’d wager that a well-produced, 10-second video piece showcasing that caramel macchiato will sell better than the chalkboard picture. Dive on in, Starbucks, the water’s fine!