Saturday, March 03, 2007

Faith in Starbucks

It's always funny when big businesses start talking about 'core values'. I remember Hewlett Packard's absurd campaign suggesting the company was being returned to the spirit of the garage in which it began. I think I got one of the printers made in that garage. Now the chairman of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, has sent a memo saying the company should 'get back to the core'. This means, primarily, seeing employees grind beans and ensuring shops are filled with the smell of roasting coffee. Read the usual New York Times's flaccid and overlong account of the affair here. Starbucks is currently growing faster than Macdonald's ever did. Shopping has become a hurried business as one lives in constant fear that any store may turn into a Starbucks in mid-transaction. The authenticity craved by Schultz is plainly hard to sustain in the midst of such an imperial expansion. But is it, was it ever, authenticity? I like Starbucks, it did indeed create a 'third place' as Schultz puts it, though for me, since I work at home, it is more accurately a second place. But its 'authenticity' is a marketing device, no more and no less. Apart from anything else, the idea that one culture's concept of authenticity could work globally is ridiculous. What is interesting, however, is that the appeal of authenticity - or 'core values' - is so strong. Globalisation intensifies the need to believe.


  1. I have just noticed that in the FT's coverage of this story, there is the observation that 'The case highlights the growing influence of unofficial websites and blogs set up to scrutinise individual companies, creating online communities where customers and employees can share uncensored information and vent opinions.' I am temtpd to set up my own self-scrutiny blog to ensure I am sticking to my own core values.

  2. I think authenticity is overrated, but if you want authenticity you would hang out in one of the one-off mom and pop coffee shops that are barely holding on in the wake of the Starbucks tsunami.

    Modern marketing is by necessity oxymoronic. You can't mass-produce and mass-market authenticity. This is the world we live in. We don't live in postcard villages. In fact Starbucks is our authentic experience. It is the authentic world of our time, because it is the reality of our experience. When people say they want authenticity, what they really want is an inauthentic experience for someone of our time. They want to live an anachronism.

  3. Bill Bryson had a number of things to say about Starbucks - that it was nothing special in the first place. So I'm not sure what authenticity they mean.

  4. I managed a quarter of a century without drinking a single cup of tea or coffee. No small feat as an Englishman.

    And then along came Starbucks. Now I'm a certifiable Frappuccinoholic.

    Incidentally, you may recall that the concept of "The Third Place" as a marketing tool in recent times was employed more explicitly - though less tangibly - by Sony for its PlayStation 2 games console.

  5. Authenticity? Give me a break. Authenticity becomes impossible the moment we put our socks on each morning. Therefore it is meaningless (unless you don't wear socks, which means you probably wear sandals, which means you probably use the word authentic quite a lot, and so on). The only time we are authentic is when we are asleep. Talk of authenticity reminds me of that other pile of crap, self-actualisation.