Starbucks -- Hiding in Plain View

In his book, "Everything but the Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks," Bryant Simon explores how Starbucks conquered the nation and the world. He spent five years stopping in at hundreds of Starbucks around the globe to decipher the company's pull on us. But in the past year the Starbucks' mystique has dulled. And Simon, a professor of history and the director of American studies at Temple University, now wonders where the chain is headed.

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In my book, I chart Starbucks' meteoric rise in the 15 years after 1990 and its equally quick deflation over the last eighteen months. I look at how the company went from an everyday status symbol - showing off that you had four dollars to waste on coffee - to an ordinary product with little cultural capital.

But as I finished the book, I struggled with how to round off the narrative -- how to convey the transformation of the brand. Then, Starbucks wrote - actually built - its own dénouement.
In July 2009, Seattle Times reporter, Melissa Allison, revealed that Starbucks would open several rustic looking, eco-friendly stores. But the new cafes wouldn't be named Starbucks and they wouldn't sell products with the familiar green Starbucks logo on them. The new coffeehouse was named 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea.

Other similarly designed Starbucks stores will also be named after the neighborhoods and areas where they are located. Tim Pfeiffer, Starbucks' senior vice president of global design, told Allison that the new names were meant to give the stores "a community personality." What he was really saying was that a Starbucks won't be a Starbucks any more. What does this tell us about Starbucks and about us?

Brands and globalization, as some scholars and community activists have noted with alarm, have bred a homogenized and numbing landscape of sameness from Seattle to Singapore. One well-researched study warned of the spread of clone towns and the effacing of local color.

When Jim Hyssop of Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare's birthplace, saw a Starbucks go up along the Main Street of his downtown several years ago near the McDonald's and the Pizza Hut already there, he predicted, "If someone blindfolded you, put you in a helicopter and set you down in a town somewhere in England, you wouldn't be able to tell where you are anymore."

Witnessing Starbucks' invasion of London, an English writer bemoaned that the historic city "is well on the way to being transformed into Generica, a land where all the high streets look identical. Chains, chains, chains - from pharmacies to pubs, cafes and restaurants." He complained that "it's disappointing to see that such a huge chunk of the population is so undiscerning."

Perhaps he is right to blame us - consumers - for the emergence of this bleak "geography of nowhere," to borrow urbanist writer James Howard Kunstler's telling phrase.

Starbucks and the other chains, at least to some extent, follow demand and for a while consumers seemed to have wanted predictability, sameness, and easily recognizable mainstream hipness at the bottom of their cups of coffee. But maybe we have reached the tipping point - and now local places will rival the brands in taste and coolness.

There is, it seems, a gathering grassroots pushback against the brands taking shape in towns and cities everywhere. Communities like Benicia, Calif. are trying to ban chain stores.

Even more widespread, consumers are rebelling against sameness with their feet and their pocketbooks. As the branded world spread from North America to Europe to Asia, from the suburbs to the cities, the value of local, slightly worn looking things and small, mom-and-pop stores has gone up.

Some consumers have grown weary of the lack of choice and have gone looking, often paying a little extra, for something that is one of a kind, special, and tied to the place they live. In many ways, this explains the appeal of the independent coffee house, and what we might call, the new economics of the small.

While Starbucks has struggled during the recession, the local places, the independents - recognizable spots in a increasingly worthy geography of some place -- have maintained their foot traffic and done okay.

Now Starbucks wants a piece of this action. It wants to play a role in the shift in demand away from sameness and predictability -- ironically, it was this very same impulse that helped drive the company's initial rise.

But in order to wedge itself into to this new marketplace of the small and the geographically relevant, it has to shed its name. That alone says something about the value of the brand and the meaning of the new slogan, "It's not just coffee, it's Starbucks."

Now a Starbucks will be called 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea. But a place with a local name that is owned by a multi-national corporation with 16,000 stores worldwide isn't really a local place. It's an illusion, another attempt to meet genuine desire with carefully crafted artifice - something Starbucks did quite often for a long time.

By Steven E. Levingston |  October 19, 2009; 5:30 AM ET Steven Levingston
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Thanks so much for that last paragraph!

Posted by: cmecyclist | October 19, 2009 7:14 AM

Haven't read your book yet...on my ever-growing list...but appreciate having an out-of-the-industry (I run an artisan roastery in Portland, OR)magnifying glass pointed on this specimen slide. It was 10 years ago that a 5-week stay in Italy changed my espresso life, and I frequented S-bux a bunch in the early 2000s. Could never figure out what a mass merchandising enterprise could possibly do positively for coffee. As one who microroasts superb green coffee, I've noticed that even large-scale microroasteries have production issues, despite the technological advances in roastng processes. S-bux could own all of the greatest green coffee produced and still come out with an underpotentiated product line. Here in Portland, where the obsession with "locally-produced" and small-scale rule, you rarely even notice the 'Bux unless you're purposefully looking, and frankly I've never figured out why this attenuation didn't happen. . earlier on. "Bigger is worser," IMHO. Is S-bux too big to fail? Sure hope not, conceptually. There's too much truly great coffee to be had, if one's eyes, ears and nose are open!

Posted by: justincello | October 19, 2009 5:42 PM

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