Fall is a nostalgic time of year. Kids return to school, football season begins, and the leaves start to change. Whether the temperatures have cooled down or not, there are few things that signal fall like the smell of coffee infused with cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, clove, and a sweet hint of pumpkin. The marketing geniuses at Starbucks understand how to build hype. Beginning in early August, we start hearing the murmurings and anticipation of the pumpkin spice latte's reappearance. Similarly, a year ago, the news media was all a buzz with the idea that the beloved pumpkin spice latte was being refreshed.
When the pumpkin spice latte joined the Starbucks beverage lineup thirteen years ago, customers rated the unique beverage in the middle. They neither loved it nor hated it, but what the surveys revealed was that people loved the experience of the warm beverage. So Starbucks continued to work on the recipe over the years, adjusting the spice and sweetness to strike the right balance while allowing the coffee to take center stage.
After receiving feedback from customers and partners about their ingredients, Starbucks took a look at what made up the pumpkin spice latte and one year ago, made its fall debut using real pumpkin puree and eliminating the caramel coloring. Prior to launching the recipe in stores, Starbucks invited a focus group to taste test the updated product. Much to everyone’s surprise, the pumpkin spice latte tasted almost exactly the same which, according to Starbucks, was exactly the point. Peter Dukes, Director of Espresso and Brewed Coffee at Starbucks, said the goal was to make a “cleaner” version of the drink, not to reinvent it.
While it may have a different name depending on the industry, all businesses conduct some form of outcomes assessment. Businesses are constantly trying to beat out the competition, but the really successful ones know that their greatest competition is themselves. To consistently, try and deliver quality products to an ever changing consumer population.
Gathering Great Ingredients. An important part of the Starbucks story centered around the ingredients. As with most coffee companies 12 or 13 years ago, artificially flavored syrups were used to make many of America’s beloved hot beverages. Starbucks knew early on that their consumers loved the pumpkin spice latte experience, but not necessarily the taste. So they decided to review the ingredients from the lens of their consumers.
It’s the same thing for institutions. With 3000 colleges and universities across the United States, there are institutions of all shapes and sizes. Many as we all know deliver the same programs, but usually what sets institutions apart are their mission and student population served. Every institution knows what sets their programs apart or how they are a little different and this is what we would term the ingredients or the curriculum. While our students may give us glowing and positive survey feedback, there is always room for improvement. A key element in determining program effectiveness begins with developing meaningful benchmarks.
Gauging the Feedback. Receiving less-than-glowing feedback is difficult. We all want to hear that our products are meeting needs and we are achieving our mission and goals, but this isn’t always the case. Starbucks had been offering the same pumpkin spice latte for twelve years before last year they decided it was time to make some necessary adjustments. While sales of the beverage were steady, they challenged themselves to improve upon the product without alienating the consumers. Starbucks acknowledged that they collected data from various focus groups across the country and that while plenty of feedback was received not every comment required an action, but they did all need to be acknowledged.
Part of an effective outcomes assessment plan includes gathering systematic feedback from students, but for a comprehensive picture, institutions need to be seeking input from all stakeholders. This includes Advisory Councils, faculty, employers, partnering institutions, transfer institutions, and even prospective students. While some of this feedback may not be able to obtained annually, it is feedback that can be gathered over a period of time and used during comprehensive program reviews. It is also helpful to weight the feedback received through a sort of feedback rubric. For instance, while student feedback is extremely helpful, institutions need to understand that their curriculum is relevant and this may determine that employer feedback for specific aspects of the curriculum might be given more weight in order to prepare students to meet the demands of the workplace.
Gearing Up For Change. Change is never easy. Even when the change will bring about positive results. By nature, we do not like change. Do we like that our coffee has sugary syrup in it? No, but we are used to the flavor, the consistency is comforting so the thought of adding real pumpkin puree to a pumpkin spice latte can initially be difficult to swallow. This is why changes should never be implemented solely based on conjecture. Starbucks had years of data that they analyzed before realizing that the ingredients used in the pumpkin spice latte could be better aligned with a more informed consumer population. Consumers want their favorite guilty pleasure beverage to align with their lifestyle. They want to feel good about indulging and Starbucks had to find a way to deliver. This likely was not an easy decision, like we mentioned, consumers neither loved nor hated the beverage, it was average, but even at average sales were still good. Starbucks had to consider their partners and the costs associated with sourcing new ingredients.
The same is equally true of institutions. Change is difficult. It is time consuming and tedious. And if enrollments are doing ok, it is easy to rationalize whether program changes are necessary at all. But just like Starbucks’ consumers, students want their education to align with their lifestyle and meet their needs. There are institutions who know this all too well. Many serve a student population who sometimes gets left behind because of accessibility or affordability struggles. We can develop the plan and gather the data, but sometimes the next couple of steps in the recipe are the hardest to follow-through. Keep in mind that recommendations or suggestions for changes that are determined from the data analyzed may not always result in big comprehensive changes. Sometimes the small changes create a huge impact. Case in point, swapping a sugary artificially flavored syrup for real pumpkin puree.
Getting Buy-In. So now that we’ve made some decisions and accepted that change is inevitable, it’s time to get buy-in. Getting buy-in isn’t just about finding a way to make sure that everyone is ok with the pending changes, it is also a way to say “thank you.” Let’s think about it like this, when Starbucks decided to give the pumpkin spice latte a little pick-me-up, they wanted to make sure that consumers understood why. They worked on a clever marketing campaign, built the hype, and even did an early launch of the beverage for those die-hard fans who downloaded the “pumpkin spice latte fan pass” badge. Although the badge was available to everyone, for a brief moment in time, Starbucks was able to make millions of faceless consumers feel special. The marketing campaign centered on the fact that consumers spoke and Starbucks listened. They weren’t too proud to admit that even they had room for improvement.
It’s important as institutions that we are communicating back to the students who invest their time away from family and limited financial resources, that their feedback is valued and valued to the point that changes are being implemented as a result. Now sometimes the changes that are needed may not come from students, but may be a result of shifts in the discipline or with employers’ needs. The principle still holds true. If institutions regularly communicate back to their stakeholders the improvements that have occurred because of the time they took to review courses, send an email, or fill out a survey, it is more likely that they will continue to provide feedback and in the end you will have established a collaborative outcomes assessment culture.
Going the Distance. Ultimately, outcomes assessment is truly about serving people better whether you’re Starbucks or a higher education institution. Sure it must be done for compliance purposes, but that is just a benefit of a thoughtful and comprehensive outcomes assessment program. The true reason for taking the time to implement an effective plan all comes back to the institutional mission. An institution cannot hope to really know whether students are learning or whether they are really earning their tuition unless benchmarks are established, gathered, measured, analyzed and finally, implemented.
Starbucks is a successful international company. No doubt, they could have kept their pumpkin spice latte recipe the same and continued to build brand loyalty. But if they did that, were they really serving their consumers well? Would they feel good about the quality of their products associated with the brand they worked so hard to develop over the years? Even after changing up the recipe, the work for Starbucks does not stop there. They must continue on to the next drink, the next breakfast sandwich, all while continuing to monitor the performance of the pumpkin spice latte. So too must institutions. We may be convinced that the changes implemented were necessary and anticipate a successful result, but we will never know unless the assessment cycle continues.
Institutions are required to publish performance disclosures. Nationwide there is a call for transparency. Just like Starbucks posts the calories contained in every drink, institutions must post their performance measures so students can make informed decisions. But this is more than just informing the consumer, it is a form of internal measurement that institutions can and should use to continue to challenge themselves, like Starbucks, to reduce calories, use healthier ingredients, and deliver quality products. Ultimately, the recipe that worked for Starbucks can work for institutions too.
It is important for institutions to positively stand out in this environment cluttered with accusations, competition, and noise. There are times when big change is needed and then, just like the subtle transition of summer to fall, simple changes can lead to great results. Outcomes assessment is about valuing students above trends and delivering consistency by improving quality.