I don’t drink coffee, but I’ve always been interested in the rise of Starbucks. Behind the business success there always seemed to be a more profound societal factor at work.
I never gave this topic much thought, but a few paragraphs in an article otherwise about “fair trade coffee” crystallized the point: Starbucks scored the ultimate marketing win by redefining what coffee means in our society.
In the mid-’90s, as Starbucks stores popped up in rapid succession and the image of the overworked exec lost some of its appeal, coffee became associated with epicureans rather than workaholics. The luxury item of a leisure class, coffee was suddenly less speed than valium. “Almost overnight, coffee switched its meaning,” comments Scott Hamrah, a semiotics consultant and expert in the field of brand identity. “It became the opposite of what it meant before. First it was this stuff that you drank that allows you to be a machine. Then it became this moment of serene contemplation.”
Retailers encouraged the switch by providing space for contemplation. As cafés appeared in urban crannies and suburban strip malls, they were stuffed with couches, books, and artwork. Consumers were encouraged to stay, peruse the paper, and ask for a second espresso. The act of ordering became a self-defining ritual; Starbucks developed a faux Italianate patois that made everyone sound like a sophisticate. “It’s amazing to me that these terms have become part of the language,” Starbucks’ Dawn Pinaud confesses in Mark Pendergrast’s coffee history Uncommon Grounds. “A few of us sat in a conference room and just made them up.”
This “second wave” paved the way for the rise of the coffee connoisseur. Java cognoscenti, and the marketers who sought them, started talking varietals and altitudes. Most significantly, they spoke of origin. In place of French Roast and Breakfast Blend, coffee joints were stocking Ethiopian, Sumatran, Jamaican. For producers, the interest in origin is a step toward developing a marketable identity, which is crucial to expanding their market. “Everybody knows that in this world of branding, if you are a coffee farmer and you are anonymous, you are in the buyer’s market,” comments George Howell, a businessman involved with the Cup of Excellence competition.
I don’t know that I buy the distinctions above (epicureans versus workaholics versus serene contemplators), but you don’t need a semiotics consultant to understand that something big changed. Unlike those that came before it, Starbucks didn’t just sell coffee; it redefined what “the coffee experience” meant to millions of consumers and, in many respects, to America at large.
Maybe it’s because I don’t drink coffee, but I had not perceived that particular big picture before.