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One-of-a-kind businesses still hold powerful attraction for consumers

By Bryant Simon - posted Thursday, 15 July 2010


Shakespeare’s birthplace is not immune from a common complaint. When Jim Hyssop saw a Starbucks open up several years ago in downtown Stratford-upon-Avon, near the McDonald’s and Pizza Hut already there, he grimly forecast: “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.”

Like many scholars and residents of places with a past, Hyssop fears that global brands will erode national, regional and neighbourhood distinctiveness. As chains deliver the same products, designs and exteriors everywhere, they could, Hyssop worries, create a soulless Generica, “a land where all the high streets look identical”.

Although McDonald’s serves 47 million customers each day in 119 countries around the world and Starbucks serves about the same number each week in 51 countries, that one-world Generica has not taken control. Instead, the spread of these branded symbols of globalisation raises the value of the local. Everywhere multinationals go, they generate a grassroots pushback, an assertion of the enduring value of particular places, tastes and traditions.

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Yet this nearly universal assertion of the local is much less widely noted than the fears of the global.

Opened in Seattle in 1971, Starbucks initially seemed more local than global. In its early years, it sold whole bean, freshly roasted coffee out of one store with the owners often standing behind the counter. Even after the company opened a second, then a third store, it retained a small mom-and-pop kind of feel.

As much as those first Starbucks looked and acted local, they were enmeshed in the global. The original logo with a bare-breasted siren imitated a Norse old-world Norse woodcut. And the beans came from far-off places like Guatemala, Sumatra and Ethiopia.

Indeed, this remaking of coffee from everyday commodity into an imported, slightly exotic affordable luxury gave Starbucks products their cultural value.

When Howard Schultz took over Starbucks in 1987, he thickened its global networks - opening the company’s first international outlet in Vancouver in 1987, then in Tokyo in 1996, Qatar in 2000, Paris in 2004 and Buenos Aires in 2008. By 2009, Starbucks had 16,120 stores on five continents.

As he tells it, Schultz experienced a coffee epiphany in a Milan espresso bar in 1983. Hearing the melodious clanking of saucers and hiss of steaming milk, he decided Americans would pay a premium for a facsimile of the Italian coffee bar.

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Schultz did more than just introduce Americans to espressos and cappuccinos. Seeking to enhance brand value by associating it with Europe - the centre of coffee culture and knowledge in the minds of most Americans - he and his colleagues sold grande and venti mistos and macchiatos prepared by baristas.

Continental references were just one part of Starbucks’s global posture. The company strived to create a transnational setting, distinct from any one locale or nation that was nonetheless still everywhere, everywhere globetrotters, creative types and the upper-middle-class convened. Whereas McDonald’s sells an idealised, consumer version of America as a fun, efficient place, Starbucks sold itself as a predictable destination on an increasingly flat global landscape.

Starbucks is the same everywhere, everywhere erasing differences and suggesting that we - those who can afford pricey drinks - are well-informed, sophisticated customers who appreciate quality, yet still care about the environment and the least fortunate. Thus, it became the brand for a new global middle class of the 21st century.

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Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online (www.yaleglobal.yale.edu). Copyright 2010, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, Yale University.



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About the Author

Bryant Simon is the director of the American Studies program at Temple University and the author of Everything but the Coffee: Learning About America From Starbucks.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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