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Starbucks--The Brand We Love to Hate

Published on Wednesday, August 13, 2003 by the San Francisco Chronicle From <www.commomdreams.org>

Why is Starbucks the brand we love to hate?
Call it Starbucking, the Fine Art of Hating Your Local Outlet of the Seattle Coffeehouse Chain


by James Sullivan


Wearing little more than foamed milk in the new issue of Playboy, the Women of Starbucks have come to a newsstand near you.

Yes, the Seattle coffee retailer is ubiquitous, having ballooned like a silicone implant from fewer than 100 stores in 1990 to more than 6,500 outlets worldwide today. For better or worse, the humble daily ritual of grabbing a cup of coffee has become near-synonymous with the retail chain with the evergreen motif. And that's a fact that really grinds the beans of more than a few protesters in this age of pervasive corporate branding.

After last week's vandalizing of several Starbucks franchises in downtown San Francisco, the question comes up again: Why, exactly, does this company inspire so much ire? More than just about any other big-name brand, Starbucks is the brand a good many people love to hate.

The reasons seem to range from the sentimental (new Starbucks storefronts tend to squeeze out independents) to the practical (they contribute to increased parking and litter problems) and the political: The activist organization Global Exchange claims that Starbucks has been less than cooperative in the effort to implement Fair Trade policies in the struggling coffee market.

Perhaps more to the point, the company has come to represent an insidious sort of big-business inexorability and a particular brand of "lifestyle" marketing epitomized by the company's own chief product. They're not selling coffee so much as the "Starbucks Experience."

It's a company philosophy that has proved particularly susceptible to criticism. McDonald's often faces resistance overseas, where it represents Westernization. The arrival of a Gap store in a previously "funky" neighborhood can be interpreted as an irreversible slide toward homogeneity. But few retail businesses have roused such an arsenal of resentment as the Seattle-cloned coffee bar.

"I don't think Starbucks makes it easy to like them," says Kieron Dwyer, the San Francisco cartoon artist who was hit with a cease-and-desist order a few years ago for his parody of the Starbucks logo (featuring the words "Consumer Whore" encircling the familiar mermaid mascot).

There's a petition circulating in Dwyer's neighborhood, the Outer Sunset along the N-Judah line, to try to keep a proposed Starbucks from opening. It's not the first time Starbucks has faced organized opposition in the city. Residents and shopkeepers in Hayes Valley, Cole Valley and North Beach have successfully lobbied to keep out the green monster.

As for Global Exchange, Fair Trade Organizer Valerie Orth says the group coerced Starbucks into carrying Fair Trade-certified coffee in many of its cafes, paying farmers a competitive price. But she claims the company has committed to carrying less than 1 percent non-"sweatshop" coffee, a far smaller figure than the 5 percent Global Exchange thought it had agreed to.

"We felt they negotiated in bad faith," says Orth.

Still, the fast-growing company will not be deterred. "We have very visible real estate," says spokeswoman Audrey Lincoff. "We garner a lot of attention. Because of that, people feel very comfortable using Starbucks as a backdrop.

"Some of the activists have said they (target us) because we are a company that cares. We do have a good track record of social responsibility. Perhaps it can never be enough for some groups."

She takes pains to make it clear that the baristas who posed for Playboy will suffer no consequences from their decision.

"We don't support it or endorse it," Lincoff says. "We have a very diverse workforce, and we embrace that diversity. We don't tell our partners" -- Starbucks franchises and their hires are "partners" -- "what they can and can't do in their personal time."

It's amusing to note that the headline just below the cover teaser for the Starbucks girls au naturel ("Warning: Contents REALLY Hot!") calls attention to a Playboy investigative piece on SARS. The Starbucks phenomenon has been described as a kind of "virus," most notably in Naomi Klein's "No Logo," the bible of anti-corporate advocacy.

Starbucks, the author writes, seems "to understand brand names at a level even deeper than Madison Avenue, incorporating marketing into every fiber of its corporate concept -- from the chain's strategic association with books, blues and jazz to its Euro-latte lingo."

For some, that premeditated packaging is evil personified. The anti- Starbucks bumper sticker ("Friends Don't Let Friends Go to Starbucks") is almost as widespread as the stores themselves. There's an "I Hate Starbucks" Web site (www.ihatestarbucks.

com) run by a reclusive Virginian who goes by the initial B. ("I don't want to get sued," he e-mails). The chain's "evil" reputation was even parodied in the "Austin Powers" film series.

"No matter how much they try and portray themselves as a place to kick back and have your triple latte," says Dwyer, the cartoonist, "they definitely have that viral thread running through."

The company's go-go self-portrait feeds the dismaying perception that there is no slowing down our accelerated culture. "It's a grab-and-go sort of thing, " says Dwyer. "They really do draw people who seem completely self-oriented. They're mostly single people going in, double-parking, being irritable that their order isn't exactly what they asked for.

"And it's partly a fashion thing. It's an accessory." Special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, Dwyer recalls, couldn't begin his press conferences during the Clinton sex scandal without his morning grande.

It should be noted that Dwyer readily admits to a long-standing addiction to Starbucks Frappuccinos -- which ended, of course, the day the lawsuit arrived.

"I was hooked, and it was a costly way to get unhooked . . . I was making fun of myself and people like me when I made that parody logo."

Out near Ocean Beach, local cafes such as the Corner Cup and Seabiscuit are concerned that an influx of Starbucks will erode their business faster than the California coastline.

"There's a whole sociological set that happens around these locations," says Barb Reusch, a worker-owner at Other Avenues Food Store, one of several businesses circulating the petition to keep Starbucks out of the area. The proposed coffeehouse will attract smokers on the sidewalk, she says. It will cause serious parking logjams. And, from the perspective of a health food store, the chain's syrup-flavored, whipped-cream-topped concoctions are bad
news: "For us, even though coffee is not especially good for you, all that synthetic junk is even worse."

But those are all specific, debatable concerns. The real issue is one of aesthetics. A new Starbucks on the block will "spoil the flavor," Reusch says.

"We have a real nice, old-fashioned neighborhood feel here. It's sweet, comfortable, inviting, not very slick. It's how a lot of neighborhood places used to be in San Francisco."

One customer who signed the petition, Reusch recalls, suggested they tell the Starbucks people to "put it in the mall. That's what malls are for."

Dwyer, the cartoonist, tells the story of how Starbucks became the official kiosk vendor of the comic book industry's biggest annual convention the very year his face-off with the company occurred. Fellow cartoonists would walk by his booth on the way back from the espresso bar, holding their Starbucks cups aloft.

"Fight the power, dude!," they'd holler. Sympathetic to the plight of the little guy, they still needed that second cuppa joe to get through the afternoon.

Whatever small victories the anti-Starbucks faction can take solace in, it would appear the larger battle has already been won.

"We continue to be a community gathering spot wherever we are around the world," says Lincoff, the company spokeswoman "And we continue to find a way to enrich people's daily lives."

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