Last Friday at 6AM Starbucks officially re-acknowledged its brand limits.
With the opening of "15th Avenue Coffee & Tea" in Seattle, the company has gone public with the admission that it requires a new, Mata Hari-brand to accelerate growth. And while it’s not branded Starbucks, its cannily constructed environment and studiously bohemian charm are straight from their playbook.
After growing to 11,000 stores in the U.S. since 1971, management obviously decided that despite its scale and successes, Starbucks was imprisoned by its many controversies: fair-trade issues; mom-and-pop carnage; corporate homogeneity; the threat of a globalizing steamroller.
The Seattle Times reports that 15th Avenue is "part of a test that will include two more Seattle shops named for their surrounding neighborhoods." Seems like the idea is to dissolve into the community with an innocuous name that encodes faux localism and hides the corporate dad. And to expand by similar acts of disappearance.
This isn’t the first time that Starbucks has tried to hide. Back in 1999, they launched their ill-fated Circadia Coffee House in San Francisco. At the time it was described as:
"…graced with antique furnishings, red velvet curtains and well-worn couches. More than just a place to grab a cup of joe, Circadia also boasts complete breakfast, lunch and dinner menus; a full liquor bar; live music; Internet access from many tables and a private meeting place called the Green Room."
As with 15th Avenue, Circadia was parentally shy:
"Circadia doesn't use any corporate branding. Nor does it leverage Starbucks' name in any way. In fact, there are no outwardly visible signs that the place is even linked to Starbucks, and many patrons don't have a clue it's owned by the coffee powerhouse."
15th Avenue is reheating the same tropes, making the same manipulated stab at historicity, manufacturing the same wannabe gemütlichkeit. The Seattle Times notes that is has a "rustic, old-time coffeehouse vibe" and that:
"The 15th Avenue store's community table, which easily fits 10 to 12 people, has a surface that came from a wooden ship; other wood around the store was salvaged from a barn. Barbed-wire lampshades above the table were left to rust — for effect — in Lake Washington…" Who said America can’t make anything, anymore? We can manufacture falseness.
The store will also feature small batches of coffees and teas, artisanal cheeses, and live entertainment including music, poetry, and the achingly trendy "actor line readings."
Much of what’s being introduced in this test store feels like a delayed reaction to the leaked memo that Howard Schultz wrote in 2007 in which he lamented a "commoditization of the experience." One example he cited was the philistine move to automatic espresso production:
"For example, when we went to automatic espresso machines, we solved a major problem in terms of speed of service and efficiency. At the same time, we overlooked the fact that we would remove much of the romance and theatre that was in play with the use of the La Marzocca machines."
Well, 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea corrects the sin. It will feature "Espresso pulled from one of Starbucks' old manual La Marzocco machines, which were phased out a decade ago in favor of automated models that work at the push of a button."
Is Starbucks right to push beyond its ubiquitous storefronts and look once again at new coffee and restaurant concepts that involve different environments, more serious meals, wine and beer? There are all sorts of existential questions about how far brands can go, about the border fences around them. Just how far can a brand be pushed and pulled and stretched, and in which directions? There’s a yin-and-yang-ing to this debate. There was period when the conventional wisdom was that strong and resonant brands were brilliantly elastic. As long as you were respectful of the brand’s equity it could roam widely on the marketing range.
Starbucks was a practitioner of this view. As the ultimate lifestyle brand, it believed it had the perceptual reservoir to sprawl into a range of caffeine-free ventures, all of which stumbled. "Joe" was a magazine produced as a joint venture with Time; it lasted three issues. Quirky merchandise like desk clocks and pencil sharpeners lasted 10 months. Even their reasonably successful "Hear Music" label was silenced in July 2008.
Interestingly, Starbucks’ stab at hegemony came during a post-Cold War environment when America’s own brand power seemed equally limitless. Coincidence? Perhaps Starbucks was guilty of its own "Imperial Overstretch", a concept popularized by the historian Paul Kennedy in a book about the limits of the great powers. Perhaps Americans were more open to grand ambitions back then, and we’re now dialing back our aspirations. A brand that’s everywhere from Beijing to Brazil doesn’t feel as cuddly and inviting as one whose global sweep begins and ends at 15th Avenue.
Has Starbucks become over-sensitized to its own limitations though? Despite those who grouse and gripe, Starbucks has a powerful and still magical brand in many ways. Just because it’s cool to bitch about them doesn’t mean you don’t value them. McDonald’s takes the opposite approach. Despite brand hit after brand hit, from their name becoming a synonym for oversized excess - McMansion - to the muckraking of "Supersize Me" – they continue to focus on expanding their core brand. Most recently, they chose to go after Starbucks with McCafe; they’re not spending their time trying to create a second McDonald’s that can accomplish things the first one can’t.
Something you won’t find in McDonald’s under any conditions: patrons who wander into 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea will gaze upon a wall that’s covered with quotations from Plato’s dialogues; Starbucks director of global-concept design expects these words of wisdom will "inspire conversation."
Meanwhile, a protester outside the new coffee shop was photographed holding up a sign reading "You can’t fake local."
You can’t fake Plato, either.